The Tkaronto Open, a jingle dress dance competition, will take place on Sept. 30 at Union Station in Toronto as part of Fall for Dance North Festival. This is the first time the festival has presented such a competition. It is free to attend and is co-presented by Union and Fall for Dance North, produced in partnership with Freddy Gipp and Thunder Jack. The Dance Current spoke with Saskatchewan-based dancer Laryn Oakes of the Plains Cree and Meskwaki tribes, who will compete in the event. Oakes resides in Saskatoon.
Bronwen Malloy: Can you tell us about your passion for jingle dress dance? I understand your mother was your teacher?
Laryn Oakes: My first love is fancy dancing, which I learned from my mom, Irene. She was the one who taught me everything I know about fancy dancing. My two older sisters, Mallary and Christy, don’t really dance anymore, but I always loved watching them dance. I never really danced jingle when I was younger. It wasn’t until about three or four years ago that I started jumping in jingle specials. I find jingle to be very calming compared to fancy. If you ever see videos of women’s fancy, it’s a lot of spinning and moving around. Your endurance for both categories has to be pretty up there… fancy is more of a high-calibre type of dancing whereas jingle is less stressful and just fun.
I wanted to jump more and jingle more for my sisters because I miss watching them dance. I hope that one day, they can return to the dance circle. I know they like it that I’m dancing in jingle specials more.
When a good friend of mine, Freddy, had this poster up for this jingle competition, I knew I wanted to do it because I wanted to challenge myself. I’ve done a lot in fancy shawl and competed in many competitions, but jingle, I’ve never really put my full 100 per cent effort into it. So, I knew this would be a challenge, and that’s something I really love to do. I challenge myself in anything – it could be in dancing and working out or riding horses — so …when I saw that post, I was like, “I’m going to try that. I think I can do it.”
BM: What inspired you to compete in the Tkaronto Open, and what does it mean to you to perform at such a large festival in downtown Toronto?
LO: What inspired me was my sisters. I competed in something like this before, but it was for women’s fancy…last year in Washington [at] the Northern Quest Dance Championships. We had to submit a video online and then they would pick the top seven finalists. If we were selected, we got our rooms paid for and we got to compete; it’s the same thing that Freddy’s doing. I remember when I did it last year, I was really nervous, but I had a lot of fun. I won it last year, so that was really awesome.
When this poster came out for Toronto, my sister, Mallary, kept sending it to me, saying, “You should do it, I think you’ll do really well and it looks like a lot of fun.” I haven’t been to Toronto since I was a young girl. It was all very spur of the moment. I bought a ticket, and I signed up right away.
It’s an awesome thing they’re bringing to Toronto and I think more people will pick up on this. I’m looking forward to it and I feel like I’ll already know what to expect just because I competed in something similar last year… so I’m not too nervous. But I am excited about it.
BM: What is your process for preparing for this competition? Physically, mentally?
LO: Mentally, have a clear mind. I always try my best to start my day with prayer, smudging myself and telling myself that I will have good thoughts for the day. I do have my moments where I may get frustrated with something or something that doesn’t go right, but I always know that my prayers, my mother’s prayers and my kookum’s prayers are the ones that keep me strong. Also, living a drug and alcohol-free lifestyle, of course, is what keeps me strong as well.
Physically, I’ve been turning up my workouts a little bit more. Yesterday, I competed in a women’s warrior challenge and we had to run two miles, ride a horse bareback and do archery. It was a lot of fun! Later on, I’ll go work out because although I said women’s jingle is more relaxing or stress-free from women’s fancy, you feel it in your calves.
I’m doing a lot more leg workouts because I’m not sure how many songs we’ll be dancing to, but it will be a lot if it’s just one day. I’m trying to prepare myself, eat right and drink a lot of water.
BM: What do you hope to gain from competing on Saturday? Is your goal to win, or are you competing for another reason?
LO: Whenever I go into a competition, my goal isn’t to be like, I’m going to win this, I need to win this. My goal is always to enjoy myself. The advice I always try to give to young girls is to find a reason why you dance. And for me, I dance for my family. My kookum, who will be 86 this next month, always watches if a powwow is going live. My uncle will give her his phone and be like, look, we can watch Laryn on here. I always think of her when I dance because she always tells me she loves watching me dance, and the same with my mom. My mom is the main reason I dance, so I dance for them. Of course, I’m going there hoping to have a good outcome no matter what. And no matter what, I’ll always be happy. If I win, lose or anything, I’m going there to enjoy myself, dance for my family and represent my people, my tribe.
BM: What challenges have you faced in your journey as a dancer and how have they shaped you as an artist?
LO: I could sit here all day and talk about all the negatives and positives of the powwow world, but I have faced my fair share of bullying. The competition gets pretty heated and there have been times when I almost wanted to quit dancing. That’s what has made me stronger because I remember those moments when I wanted to sell my whole outfit. I didn’t want to dance anymore. I was crying in my mom’s arms. But it was my mom and my family that kept me going. There are so many young girls out there that look up to me and a lot of girls that I’ve met where they’re just like, “Oh, I watch you on YouTube,” or, “Oh, I’ve looked up to you ever since I was a little girl,” or “You’re the reason why I dance.” And I’m like, okay, those are the reasons why I need to keep dancing. And that’s what keeps me going. And that’s why I hope to keep dancing until I’m 90. No matter what, I never let anyone make me feel like that, like I did back when I wanted to quit. So I feel like that’s what has shaped me into who I am today and has made me strong because you have to have tough skin for any competitive world. It can be dancing, sports, ballet, anything. You have to have tough skin. It wasn’t all bad, but those are the few small moments in my life where I am glad that I pushed through and had the support system that I had – they’re the reason why I keep going and why I’m still dancing.
BM: Can you share a memorable or transformative moment from your dance career that had a profound impact on you as an artist?
LO: When I was young, I had no desire to dance. I was just a short, chubby little girl who would just go to powwows because my mom made me go. I remember watching my mom in an Iron Woman Special at a powwow in Saskatchewan. An Iron Woman Special is where they have to keep dancing. It’s like a marathon. You can’t stop, but you just keep dancing and dancing. I remember sitting on the sidelines watching and screaming so loud for my mom and I was yelling at her, like, come on, mom, you can do it. I was just cheering her on really loud and I was probably only, I don’t know, five. And I remember there was a moment, it was almost like a movie; it’s like a moment I had watching her.
In my mind, I thought… I’m going to be like her, I’m going to be just as good as her and I’m going to be a world champion just like her. My mom ended up winning the Iron Woman. She danced for, I think, an hour and a half straight and won a big trophy and prize money. I remember I was in tears. I was just so in awe. It was like watching your idol, but lucky for me, my idol was my mom. I think at that moment, that’s when I told myself that, okay, I’m going to work hard for these next couple of years and I’m going to be a champion just like her. And I feel like where I’m at today, that I’ve held on to that promise to myself. I look at what I’ve…accomplished and like I said, I owe a lot to my mom. Because just that small little moment, it just sticks out in my memory.
I think she’s the reason why I love dancing so much and she’s the reason why I took it so seriously all these years, all these competitions that I was so fortunate enough to win. She was always right there, right beside me, cheering me on, just like how I cheered her on. I don’t even know where I’d be without her if I didn’t have her. So I owe a lot to her.
BM: What’s next for you after the competition? Do you have any upcoming projects?
LO: After the competition in Toronto I do have some upcoming powwows where I’ll be competing. I’ll be at Black Hills in Rapid City, South Dakota. That’s a really big one. Then just a few here and there. One in Saskatchewan and one in Red Deer. The summertime it’s almost every weekend, but as the fall and winter comes, it’s here and there because everyone’s getting back into school and to work. So those are my last few for the year, and then probably next year they’ll slowly start up again in January.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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