Students from throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta danced at the Cama-i Dance Festival last weekend, including Bethel Regional High School’s very own wrestling team. They call themselves the Piniiq Dancers, and performing at Cama-i was one of their longtime goals.
Bethel’s high school wrestling team started dancing together about a year ago when they were offered a funded trip to Texas. After last year’s Cama-i, the director of Drew’s Foundation, a suicide prevention non-profit, invited Avery Hoffman and other Y-K Delta students to perform at a cultural festival in southern Texas. Hoffman said that he would, but first he needed a dance team. He went to the people he knew.
"I woke up one morning and got a text from Avery, and he said, 'come over, we’re practicing!'" said Hayden Lieb, one of Hoffman's teammates. "And I didn’t know what it was for. 'We’re getting the drums out!' [said Avery]. And I said, 'what are we doing?' And he said, 'we’re forming a dance group!'"
Their dance troupe was born in the Hoffman’s living room and they called themselves the Piniiq Dancers. "It means strong," explained Avery, "because we’re all wrestlers."
They practiced once a week and then, closer to the festival in Texas, a lot more than that. The wrestlers performed in Texas; they said it was a trip of a lifetime and they’ve been performing together ever since.
Avery Hoffman's mom, Ana Hoffman, helped the Piniiq Dancers get ready for Cama-i. The wrestlers brought some serious game to their dance group. A lot of them have been dancing since kindergarten, and their hard work drew them closer to their cultural roots. For Ana Hoffman, it also brought back memories.
"Just the other night, my aunt was here from Anchorage," she said. "And I said to her, 'what is this song that’s stuck in my head?'"
She sang a few bars of the song to her aunt in Yup'ik. Her aunt looked at her and began singing the song back. "It revived this song in the back of her mind that she had not even thought about," said Hoffman, "and she said that is an original Bethel song."
Ana Hoffman and the Piniiq Dancers choreographed a dance to go along with it, and they performed that song together last Saturday night.
A number of Bethel's wrestlers are graduating this year, and they have some advice for the high school athletes who follow them: get a group of guys together and just keep yuraq-ing.