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Northstar Dance Company celebrates Native American Heritage Month by educating public

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Members of the Northstar Dance Company rehearse at  THPRD's Garden Home Recreation Center.Inside a studio in the Garden Home Recreation Center, dancers dressed in vibrant regalia sway and bounce and turn to the music.

Some of the dancers’ movements are sharp and springy, while others are soft and seemingly melt into the ground.

They all have their own styles, varying based on the nations they descend from.

When Northstar Dance Company formed in 2005, it came out of Painted Sky, an organization that formed in 1995 to provide Native American education and awareness through music. Northstar accepted the same challenge through dance.

“The dance company had all the challenges of living in two worlds with heritage and urban in pushing the boundaries (of) music and dance to be more when starting out,” said Mary Hager, founder and president. “The best part of dawn is waiting to see what new happening will occur — the same is true for Northstar. Watching the evolution for that new moment in style is a smile to carry with us.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Colt Nicol of Portland puts on an Indian roach headdress before Northstar Dance Company's rehearsal last week at the Garden Home Recreation Center.

Hager’s mission to carry on the Native heritage came from her father, who was French Candadian Cree. Before he died, she promised “to bring Native into the light through ‘The Dance.’” She teamed up with Arlie Neskahi of the Diné Nation, whose father had made a similar prediction involving music. Lastly, a partnership occurred with another father/son duo, who helped back the endeavor and joined the board.

“The three fathers (who came) from an era when standing for your heritage was fought in World War II in other lands, and even here on this soil,” Hager said. “(They) gave through their words the path, wisdom and strength to keep the promise and keep on moving forward. Words that are always with us each day.”

In order to carry on the promise of sharing Native American culture through dance, Northstar needed a dance director. Ultimately, this rested on Damon Keller, who has been with the company since the beginning. A tap, hip-hop and contemporary dancer, Keller openly admits that in the beginning, he “knew nothing about Native dancing.”

A decade later, however, he describes himself as “the glue,” while Hager describes him as the voice, the patience, the bridge and the mentor.Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Betty Stephens dances with Northstar Dance Company.

“Now, they’re starting to get used to me after 10 years. They know where I’m going, I guess,” said the lead director and coordinator, who also teaches dance for Portland Public Schools and owns a studio in Beaverton. “You’re around somebody, you know their ins and outs, you know their quirks and their isms. So, I can ask them to do more.”

One instance of this was last year, when the company was on a plane headed to a performance in St. Louis, Missouri. Keller was inspired by a song, and began asking his dancers if they thought they could dance to it. By the end of the flight, they’d revamped their show and added hip-hop to their performance. While Northstar focuses on sharing Native American culture, the company also strives to show how different cultures don’t have to stand apart from one another.

“Everybody that you perform for, mostly in the cities, this is something that’s new to them,” said Mary Bodine, who joined Northstar in the beginning, when she was 16 years old. “I think it’s just being able to teach and show other people what we do, and explain it and talk to them, and remind people that Indians still exist. You’d be surprised how often we get asked if we’re real Indians. We get asked every (performance).”

Colt Nicol, another dancer who’s been involved since the beginning and who is Hager’s son, shared similar feelings. In fact, many of the dancers discussed that much their passion for performance comes back to the hope that it might break stereotypes.

“That’s the thing about it, is being consciously aware that we’re still here, and we’re not hiding. We’re right out in the open,” Nicol said. “That’s why we do this dance, and that’s why we’re a part of this company. We mix with hip-hop, modern and contemporary, to show that the new generation and the old generation can find its way in the middle, and then, throughout the entire planet, we can find peace.”

After the dancers finished what appeared to be a more traditional piece, there was some brief discussion before Rihanna and Drake began blasting through the speakers. The dancers maintained their styles but adjusted to the song, and Keller came in part way through, incorporating break dancing into the piece. While the styles differed, they were also somehow very much the same.

“I just like the feeling of us getting out there and sharing the heritage. It doesn’t just have to be traditional ways, we move on in our ways of dancing — we evolve with the world that surrounds us,” said Matthew Clements, who’s been a Northstar dancer for four years after moving from the Warm Springs Reservation. “We’re still here, we’re still Natives, and we like to get out and show that we, too, can still survive in this kind of world. It’s like a voice. This is our tradition, our heritage, and it has been for years. We just like sharing it with everyone out there.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - George Clements dances during Northstar Dance Company's rehearsal at the Garden Home Recreation Center.Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Betty Stephens, left, and Mary Bodine dance during Northstar Dance Company's rehearsal.

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