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Yvonne Chartrand on Métis Dances

The next edition of our Discover Dance! series features V’ni Dansi’s Louis Riel Métis Dancers. We sat down (virtually!) with V’ni Dansi’s Artistic Director (and champion jigger) Yvonne Chartrand to find out more. 

Tell us about traditional Métis dancing: where do the dances originate? What are they like? 

Traditional Métis dances are very old and have been passed on from generation to generation. They have First Nations and European influences and, like our culture and Nation, these influences have blended to create a unique style of dance. Most of the dances are danced to fiddle tunes. Most Métis fiddlers learned to play by ear and didn’t read music. They began adding extra beats which is why it is now known as “crooked” music. There are many influences from French, Scottish, Irish, English and Scandinavian fiddle music, jigging and dancing, plus influences from the prairie First Nations pow wow dances which are danced to the drum and known as the heartbeat of Mother Earth. 

There are three categories within the traditional Métis dances. The Red River Jig consists of traditional fancy steps or “changes” that sound like a running horse and are single steps, of which about 100 were danced. The Métis love to dance!  The second category are the group dances such as reels, contra dances, polkas, waltzes, two-steps and more.  Finally, there are the unique Métis square dances where the dancers always jig through the entire dance.  Traditionally, there was a square dance caller who called the dances. Callers today are rare and I have been reviving the Métis square dance as much as possible through projects such as the one in my home community of St Laurent after the community saw a need for it.   

Why is the Red River Jig famous?  

The Red River Jig is a fiddle tune and a dance known as the national dance as well as the song of the Métis people. In the 1800’s the Red River Jig was played from James Bay to Alaska and was, and continues to be, very popular and beloved by Métis. The fiddle was easy to carry in a canoe or a red river cart and was played at social gatherings and events which gave it social and economic value in trading. This tune is played at festivals across the homeland and many have Red River Jig competitions where everyone loves to hear the tune and see the dancers jig for hours!  It literally keeps the dancers on their toes as every fiddler has their own style and sometimes the same fiddler will play it differently every time.  This keeps the dancer energized, in the moment, with a fun and joyful connection to the fiddler and music. I believe it is our love of dance, music and our beautiful culture that keeps the Red River Jig as famous as ever! 

You are a champion jigger – what does that mean? How long have you been jigging?  

I started jigging in Manitoba thanks to my oldest sister, Caroline, who asked me in 1986 to be a part of a group in Winnipeg called The Gabriel Dumont Dancers. Many jiggers start dancing as babies when they dance on the feet of their moms, dads, aunties and uncles. I was raised in non-Métis communities without connection to the culture and our dances.  After settling in Winnipeg and joining the dance group I went on to attend social dances for fun and continue to jig until today!  After moving to Vancouver, a jigger said I should meet Maria Campbell, and she agreed to be my mentor.  When I attended the John Arcand Fiddle Fest outside Saskatoon, I took the workshops but didn’t want to compete, however, my Elders encouraged me to get up on the stage and share my jigging.  In our culture we listen to our Elders and I began winning! The first year I won 2nd place and then 1st place for the next three years and finally, overall grand champion the fourth year. I went to Edmonton and won 1st place and so it continued.   

What kind of training does a jigger do? 

Jigging is a part of our culture and is, usually, learned at an early age as a lifestyle and social dance. There are children’s groups in many communities and I have seen amazing dancers as young as five! A jigger usually begins dancing with a group and learns from a knowledge keeper or teacher/choreographer. Young dancers perform alongside professional dancers. Many communities have a group who will meet once or twice a week or more. They will learn dances and create new Métis square dances every year with new contemporary steps. The talent across the homeland is incredible to see, especially live!  All groups share the same passion, dedication and love for dancing.  I met a leader of a group that won over 50 trophies and in his warmup the dancers jigged forward, backward and side to side for the first twenty minutes to learn to be in sync with one another and to build their stamina.  I began incorporating this into my warmups as well as focus on practicing the many steps. Some of our dances last for around 15 minutes and have up to 33 fancy steps so it is important to keep up the cardio and stamina.  The Red River Jig, being a crooked tune, can take time to learn when, and how, to change your step to the fancy step and be in time with the group. It’s like riding a horse though, and once you learn you never forget!   

What is a “fancy step”? 

In the Red River Jig there are two parts to the music and two parts to the dance. In the first part of the music a dancer does a step that remains the same. The second part of the music the dancer does a step that is different every time known as a fancy step or a change. Dancers love to show off their fancy steps. Today many of the contemporary square dances include many fancy steps within the dance which has created a new level of mastery, inspiration and creativity. 

Tell us about your upcoming Discover Dance! show with the Louis Riel Metis Dancers. 

We will be sharing our traditional style of Métis dance by showing a few very old dances while wearing our historical outfits and beadwork while dancing in moccasins. We will then share our contemporary style of Métis dance with more dynamic footwork and choreography with lots of high stepping while wearing shoes called “clickers” that are much like a tap shoe with two pieces of metal that make a unique sound. We will be wearing new square dance outfits designed by Evan Ducharme who will also be one our dancers. Evan was recently in an issue of Vogue magazine and is an up-and-coming Indigenous fashion designer extraordinaire with a Métis flair!  We also will have fiddler Kathleen Nisbet, who plays her grandfather’s fiddle and continues the tradition of playing for dances and community events. She will play her finest for our Red River Special, a series of dances many groups do in Manitoba that combines three dances together for non-stop action and we will share over thirty fancy steps.  We usually invite the audience to come up and dance but with the pandemic restrictions I was musing about a moose-calling competition instead! 

This year, we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Scotiabank Dance Centre. What impact do you feel the building has had? 

Scotiabank Dance Centre is like a second home to V’ni Dansi and The Louis Riel Métis Dancers, where the staff are like family and our community always feels welcomed and comfortable. The familiar studios are sacred to us and we feel safe, warm and well taken care of with friendly faces everywhere you turn; much like a seven-story log cabin that’s cozy and warm!  It is a gathering place for dancers and artists, supporters and lovers of dance, and reminds me of the community centre where we lived in Northern Manitoba which was named after one of the Elders who worked tirelessly to bring the community together. Mirna, the Executive Director, may not be an Elder yet but she and her staff are full of that same dedication, passion and love that our dear elder, Adam Dick had for his community. I and many others have grown tremendously over the years through the artist and technical residences, performances, and board development, and have had the great honour to be able to attend activities to support and learn from so many other dance artists in Vancouver, provincially, nationally and internationally. The Dance Centre has created the opportunity for everyone to enjoy and learn about the inspirational, diverse global dance community and I appreciate that all the children of Mother Earth have a home there. 

What is your next project? 

We are presently preparing for our 16th annual Louis Riel Day Celebration on November 14Then we begin working towards our world premiere of La Mitchin di Mitchif (Michif Medicines), an international collaboration with Dancing Earth from Santa Fe, New Mexico, performing on National Indigenous Peoples Day and for National Indigenous history month in June – supported through a Dance Centre technical residency. Marsi, Hiy Hiy Meegwetch! 

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The Dance Centre presents the Discover Dance! series
V’ni Dansi’s Louis Riel Métis Dancers
Thursday November 18, 2021 | 12 noon
Scotiabank Dance Centre

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Photos by Chris Randle