Santee Smith: Here on Earth to dance


With the spiritual traditions of her Haudenosaunee heritage as a guiding force, Santee Smith embraces dance to express who she is.

Born in 1971 in Hamilton and a member of the Mohawk Nation's Turtle Clan from Six Nations near Brantford, Ont., Smith found dance at an early age. At three, she began studying ballet, and in 1982 entered the National Ballet School of Canada in Toronto, where she remained until 1988, after advancing to the rigorous Cecchetti Method.

Smith also studied movement, obtaining a bachelor's degree in physical education (kinesiology) from Hamilton's McMaster University and a Master of Arts degree in dance from York University in Toronto.

With all that background, she started creating her own choreography in 1996 to explore how dance can touch the soul of both the dancer and audience "by focusing on transformation, communication and meaningful movement."

In Here on Earth, Smith draws from the Iroquoian story of Creation to explore the Earth as a sacred living organism and as mother. Four primal beings travel from the sky to touch the Earth, and in so doing, embark on journeys of discovery and transformation. Hailed by Globe and Mail dance critic Paula Citron as a "hymn" to our planet, the piece illustrates the fractures and dysfunction people cause when the land and its spirit are not held sacred.

Smith’s most famous and critically-acclaimed work, Kaha:wi (pronounced Ga-ha-wee), billed as a celebration of contemporary Iroquoian song and dance, is arguably her most personal work. Four years in the making, it debuted in 2004. (Kaha:wi, the Mohawk word for "she carries," is also the name of the choreographer's grandmother, who died just before Smith's daughter, Semiah Kaha:wi, was born in 1998.)

Featuring a soundtrack of Iroquoian music and a cast of 10 dancers, the production traces the circle of life across three generations of women: a grandmother dies and her granddaughter gives birth to her own daughter – highlighting, in Smith's words, "the continuous cycle of life, and women who are inextricably linked to Creation."

In 2005, Smith formed her own dance company, Kaha:wi Dance Theatre. The troupe's mission is "to create and promote contemporary artistic expression that reflects and honours the integrity of the Indigenous cultural aesthetic and world view," says its founding artistic director.

Says Smith: "Kaha:wi Dance Theatre aims to spark audience interest in Aboriginal artistic expression through dance and its associated disciplines of music, storytelling, theatre and design." The company has already made significant strides in fulfilling those goals. In July 2006, Kaha:wi presented the three-day international Living Ritual: World Indigenous Dance Festival at two places close to Smith's heart: York University in Toronto, where she studied, and at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, near where she grew up and now lives. Here on Earth was among the performances.

For the sultry-looking Smith, dance is a sensual form of self-expression and remains a "lifelong exploration – a gift from the Creator." As she explains: "Dance is not only an artistic outlet, it is a part of my identity."

In early 2007, Smith and Kaha:wi will embark on a North American tour.

– Christopher Guly

January 2014