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Dancing Close to the Earth

As we planned Dancing Joy, we wanted to celebrate the ancient culture of the Indigenous American people. Dance has been a way to preserve the wisdom and traditions of the ancestors, and it has been central to passing this on to the new generations. In North America, the original people--the Anishinaabe--have always used dance and music as a focal point of gatherings and as a reminder of ancient wisdom.

To film our Native American dancers, we traveled to Wisconsin, to the independent Oneida nation. The dancers represented a cross section of several tribes--Ojibway, Menominee, Oneida--and they designed and prepared their regalia (traditional garments) in accordance with the dance forms they performed. For instance, the Jingle Dance of the women is done with clothing to which tiny metal cylinders has been sewn, which jingles as they dance. The Fancy Dance is done with brilliant fringed shawls, while headdresses and beadwork adorn the head and neck. The male dancers evoke the flight of eagles and woodland birds through the fringed "wings" and feathered cloaks and headpieces. Hair braids, footwear, jewelry--all have significance.

Summer Sky Cohen, the choreographer, and Dona Yahola, the local production coordinator, brought the dancers together and organized the shoot at the Oneida Nation's Norbert Hill Center, with the approval of the tribal council. Some seven dancers--five women and two men--collaborated and choreographed group and solo dances together.

With the Oneida Tribal Council's permission, we shot with the drone as well as the on-the-ground footage. At one crucial point in the dance filming, the drone actually hit the tree branches, giving us some worried moments. Several of the dancers performed individual dance, in different locations. We also shot one of the key moments of the film in the forest nearby. As the dancer reaches down and picks up some of the earth, he looks up at the towering trees all around, lifting his eyes to the heavens. This became one of the most poignant moments in the film, sharing the love of the earth and the deep connection to the Divine, which is the source of all nature and of all humanity.

After we wrapped for the day, we shared a typical Oneida feast, with a thick soup of hominy corn and meat, and with traditional corn bread and a very refreshing drink made from pureed strawberries. Caterer Jamie Betters specializes in such authentic fare, and we were nourished and uplifted as the participants shared their traditional fare with us.

It was illuminating to learn parts of the culture and stories of the various tribes, and to hear about their various languages. They explained many of the underlying values of their culture: that there is no separation between Spirit and the practical, for instance. Also, the language of the tribe often contains rich layers of meaning--that when one describes the taste of blueberry pie, the word includes the texture and process of the cooking as well as the flavor.

With the brilliant regalia and flowing movement, the dancers created a stunning reminder of the richness of their heritage, and the spiritual values that are intrinsic to their way of life. They are preserving the ancient ways of their ancestors, while reaching out to help youth inherit and benefit from that knowledge.

These "Close to the Earth" dancers wove a powerful lesson into the process of the filming for us. We were honored to have this strong and dynamic group become a part of this film.

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