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On a blue day at the Seattle waterfront, the Muckleshoot Canoe Family performed songs about the strength, happiness, and interconnectedness of the Muckleshoot people as puffy white clouds scudded across the sky above Pier 62, a new community and art space that opened in September 2020. These members of the Muckleshoot Tribe, clad in a combination of contemporary clothing and traditional Native dress, opened the Reflections Dance Festival on November 12 through singing, drumming, and dancing. Reflections, subtitled “What the Water Holds,” asked five local performing groups to sum up 2020 in one dance. These dances were presented alongside live interviews with the creators. 

For the Muckleshoot Canoe Family, their performances highlighted the Coast Salish voice through song and dance that is, as emcee David Rue put it, “rooted in a traditional practice that has survived colonialism.” Woman’s Honor Song originates in a place that is a month-long canoe journey from Seattle. Its inclusion in the program speaks to how connected the Indigenous tribe is by the Salish Sea, and a reminder of what the Muckleshoot Tribe has missed during the COVID-19 era, when canoe journeys have not been possible. Four drumming men sang meditative choruses in low voices as two women danced and swayed to the melodies. Though they have endured “both physical and cultural genocide…the tribe is thriving and happy to be here,” musician Justice Bill commented. “We are a strong people.”

Mackenzie Neusiok, another indigenous performer and member of the Coharie Tribe from North Carolina, spoke to the beauty of the Coast Salish peoples and how welcoming she has found the Indigenous communities of Seattle, particularly as a member of another tribe of water people. Her contemporary dance piece Winter, performed barefoot on the pier, was melancholy, thoughtful, and anticipatory. Neusiok spoke about the winter season as a time of reflection and listening, a time to breathe and heal and eventually find peace. Her contrasting piece, Autumn, explored the confident power that can come from embracing your own body and sexuality, particularly in a settler culture that hypersexualizes Indigenous women. The jazzy, propulsive piece closed with Neusiok placing a palm over her mouth, leaving a red handprint behind—the symbol of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement, which raises awareness of the disproportionately high rates of Native women who are assaulted, kidnapped, and killed. Neusiok stressed the need for tribal sovereignty as the best way to protect Native women—a communal version of taking ownership of your own body.

Another perspective on the body as a powerful voice came from Nia-Amina Minor, whose piece for three dancers set rhythmic stepping, jumping, and shuffling to “Rivers of Jordan” by The Black Tones. The masked dancers, dressed in loose white and blue costumes, paid tribute to the sky, the water, the body, pain, and exhaustion. Minor spoke to the need to be held and cared for during a psychologically exhausting time and the importance of remembrance as a key part of healing. We’re “unearthing soul stories, blood memories, impossible tasks” in this dance, she said, which “transforms into the intimate act of remembering who we are and where we come from.” One by one, the dancers fell to their knees. But strength emerged from this collapse, and they then expanded from the ground into spirited movement, finally stepping to the edge of the pier, looking out to the ocean grounded and strong.

Where Minor’s piece found healing in community, Cipher Goings turned inward to the self in his solo tap piece. The complicated syncopations, set to a Talaya song about the confusing mixture of hopes and fears surrounding success, were born out of Goings’ questions about what dance will look like post-pandemic, and how to process ongoing police brutality against Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. Goings’ peaceful expression conveyed tranquility while his feet executed precise, impossibly quick movements. The piece was an example of personal steadiness despite the injustice and chaos that surrounds us.

The program closed with a gathering of Black women celebrating their presence, worthiness, and collective healing. Kimisha Turner led the community art piece, which featured dance, chanting, singing bowls and percussion, poetry, and meditation with contributions from Naa Akua, Syreeta Bernal, Jennifer Moore, and Anastacia Reneé. Drawing inspiration from the Yoruba water goddess Yemoja, the piece intertwined themes of femininity, water, and Blackness. It acknowledged the hardships and racism faced by the Black community, and then found joy and communion in togetherness, even while socially distanced. The performers wore face masks emblazoned with the work’s title, I AM, as they danced and sang and blessed the new Pier 62 space—and themselves.

Through a well-executed digital format, Reflections rendered art by and for members of the Indigenous and African diaspora communities accessible. The beautiful cinematography by Futsum Tsegai allowed viewers to get close to the dancers’ faces and also see 360º aerial views of the performances, Puget Sound, and Pier 62, thanks to drone footage. The artist interviews presented between each piece allowed the creators to speak for themselves and explore the meaning behind their work for a broad audience. This was art as celebration, as mourning, as education, as activism, and as inspiration. It is also an example of how city arts organizations can center BIPOC creators in their programming, even while public performances are on hold.

Reflections Dance Festival, co-presented by Seattle Public Library, Friends of the Waterfront, Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, Office of the Waterfront and Civic Design, and Seattle Art Museum, streamed virtually on November 12, 2020. The program is available for viewing on YouTube here.