It’s a cold and dark Tuesday night in Yellowknife – one day after what was once chalked up to the most depressing date of the year. But in a church hall basement, amid a chorus of laughs, the pulse of polka music and the drumming of dancing feet, you’d never know it.
“It’s hard to feel bad when you’re doing the polka,” says Tracey Belton-Horton, skipping through a CD-player before settling on a lively Bavarian number.
On the hardwood floors of Yellowknife’s Anglican Church, she’s met by five other women. They join hands, forming a circle as they spin clockwise, then counterclockwise in concert, their traditional European skirts whirling one step behind their quick feet.
Together, they make up the Yellowknife Elders Folk Dance Collective, an international folk dance group for seniors that formed in 2016.
“It’s good for the soul, good for the body, good for the mind,” Louise Debogorski, the collective’s co-chair, said when Yellowknifer dropped by on Jan. 22.
“As you get older, you really need that,” said Debogorski.
The volunteer-run collective offers memberships as well as drop in lessons every Tuesday for residents over the age of 55. The idea was birthed by like-minded lovers of dance after some troops in the city fazed out adult participation, focusing instead on honing the skills of young upstarts.
“But we said, ‘we still like to dance.’ So we formed our own dance group” said Velma Sterenberg, co-chair of Yellowknife Elders Folk Dance Collective. “That allowed us to do multicultural dance. Yellowknife is so multicultural, it just works,” she said.
From Quebec and the Caribbean to Ukraine and Romania, the dance outfit boasts a repertoire of culturally-diverse dances, something director and program coordinator Belton-Horton strives toward. Last year, she tried to incorporate a dance from every continent, from Africa and Asia to South America and the “tricky” Australia.
“We might not be able to afford to do it in real life, but we’re trying to explore the world through dance,” said Belton-Horton.
The world is coming to the church hall, too. In November, Sterenberg said a Pakistani man dropped by to teach Bhangra, an Indian folk dance, to the class.“It just about killed us, but we had fun,” laughed Sterenberg, adding members have also tried out belly dancing.
The collective has also incorporated Indigenous dancing into its lessons, including Metis jigging.
“It’s really important to celebrate cultures that are in the NWT,” said Sterenberg.
Most of the group’s members, including Belton-Horton, share a Ukrainian heritage, with many learning traditional dances as children.
But the weekly gathering is open to all skill levels.
“We just welcome whoever wants to come in the door and dance,” said Sterenberg. “We have had people who don’t know their left foot from their right and they’ve come and had a really good time,” she added.
For newly joined member Caroline Horn, who stopped dancing when she had children, Yellowknife Elders Folk Dance Collective has allowed her to reconnect with her former love of dance. “It’s nice to go to my kids, who are 13 and 11, and show them some steps and they show me some modern steps,” she said.
Sterenberg said some newcomers, expecting to see seniors dancing with their walkers, are surprised by the lively bunch. The group’s oldest dancer participated last year at 75-years-young, said Sterenberg.
Not only are members sharing laughs, stories, and cultures through dance – they’re also keeping their bodies and brains sharp, she added, citing scientific studies.
“We’re using all of our body parts and cognitive parts,” said Sterenberg.
“Crosswords, sure, that’s okay. But if you really want keep your brain working, put your damn Sudoko down and come dance with us.”
The group doesn’t do formal performances – it’s more about showing off to each other, not an audience, said Belton-Horton – but make exceptions for birthday parties, weddings and other events.
As part of Sterenberg’s bid to give back to the community through the collective, members will take to the Snow Castle in March to folk dance lessons as part of the Royal Ball.
“Yes, we’re elders, but at the Snow Castle, we’re going to be involving the whole community, and, again, that’s really important to us.”