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Manito Ahbee Festival kicks off with friendship dance record

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The Manito Ahbee Festival kicked off Thursday afternoon on Edmonton Street with an attempt to set a new record for the largest friendship dance.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

The Manito Ahbee Festival kicked off Thursday afternoon on Edmonton Street with an attempt to set a new record for the largest friendship dance. Photo Store

I didn’t bring my dancing shoes to work with me. But that was OK because I had 400 friends helping me out along the way.

The annual Manito Ahbee Festival, which celebrates indigenous culture and heritage, kicked off Thursday with a record-setting friendship dance on Edmonton Street between Portage and Graham avenues.

Were my feet up to the task of partaking in such a dance? I do have two left feet and I believe I’m one of the few people from my rural graduating class who has yet to master the two-step.

Singer and activist Ray "Co-Co" Stevenson, the man leading Thursday’s friendship dance with his music, broke the dance into a couple of very simple steps.

"If you can count to one, two, one, two, one, two, you’ll be fine," Stevenson said as he moved one foot forward and dragged the other behind. "It’s a simple one, two step. Just pretend you have a sore leg and you’re limping and you’re round dancing. That’s what it looks like."

The round dance is a traditional aboriginal dance that helps the recently deceased start their journey into the spirit world. The friendship dance, which was performed on Thursday, is a little different. It included different people, tribes and races coming together for a good time.

"We have one person that will lead it and wherever that person goes you just try and make that line as big and long as you can," Stevenson explained.

"At the end we’ll unite as one big circle. That’s what it’s all about. Life. That circle of life and brining everybody together."

People of all walks of life, ages and race were more than welcome and encouraged to take part in the friendship dance. The more the merrier, too. The Manito Ahbee Festival was attempting to break a record for the largest friendship dance in Canada.

Stevenson got on stage with his drum and belted out lyrics from traditional round-dance songs. I joined hands with the circle and off we went. One foot forward, drag my "hurt" leg behind and repeat.

It didn’t feel like we were taking part in an aboriginal round dance — we were just people of different colours, ages and backgrounds coming together for one cause. The Ballet Folklorico Danza, a dancing group from Colombia, even took part in the dance. They’re in Winnipeg for Folklorama.

Four hundred people were needed to break the record. When the music stopped it was announced we were halfway there. Two-hundred people crowded Edmonton Street, looking around at bystanders on the sidewalk.

"Come join us!" they said. "We’ve got a record to break!"

About seven songs later, Stevenson announced the record was broken. Four hundred and one people came together, weaving in and out of circles, holding hands with strangers and breaking down the barriers of race.

Stevenson looked exhausted after the dance. He did spend the last half-hour sweltering in the sun, putting effort into every note he sang. Leading up to the friendship dance, Stevenson had emceed and sang at Folklorama for 13 straight shows.

"It was difficult to come out here and do this today, but you know what? Mission accomplished. That’s all I can say," Stevenson said. "We got everybody from all different races and all different colours united as one race. Not anything more, not anything less."

The friendship dance is meant to be shared among everyone. The idea of watching it from the side is nice, but when hundreds of strangers ask you to join in, you gain a new appreciation for the culture.

The Manito Ahbee Festival runs from Aug. 16-21. More information can be found at www.manitoahbee.com.

kyle.jahns@freepress.mb.ca

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