The Qasgirimuit dance group prepares for the first full Cama-i festival in 3 years
On Wednesday, March 22, people gathered inside the Orutsararmiut Native Council
(ONC) multipurpose room. The building used to be an old bowling alley. Long gone are the bowling balls and gutters, but the wood floors are still there. To the left, where the lanes used to be, there’s a stage where five male drummers sit at its edge. At the center is the lead drummer. His name is Benjamin Agimuk and the name of the dance group is Qasgirimuit.
Their drums are hoops with a few grooves where they stretch a nylon-type fabric.
"We use a drum. It's just a circular hoop, a couple of grooves when we put, like, airplane fabric or ripstop nylon, and just kind of get them as tight as possible. But try to have it at the right tune level. Other drums, as you've seen there where they spray water on it, that's walrus stomach, which was traditionally used back then before the fabric came along," Agimuk said.
They start another song. It’s a slow build. The drum strikes crescendo and undulate. All five drummers beat; the room breathes.
The dancers are split by gender. There are nearly 10 boys from toddlers to teenagers facing the drummers. Behind them are about 25 young girls to mature women. Elders are sitting nearby. Some watch, some nod in approval.
“ I've been doing this for a while. I've been in dancing for about 23 years, but I've been drumming since about 2010,” Agimuk said.
Rhythm fills the space and people dance. Each movement is precise. They are in unison, driven by the strike. Heat radiates and the room temperature rises. They take breaks.
“We have approximately eight drummers. Possibly more. Not everyone's here. But we try to use as many drummers as possible, but without overdoing it. So I'm projecting about six drummers during Cama-i," Agimuk said.
The dancers’ feathers float like waves or, more appropriately, like the northern lights on clear nights at Tundra Ridge. The senses can only take so many pulses, so they take another break.
Agimuk reflects on the significance. “A lot of it is, you know, based on what we see, what we hear, what we do. A lot of them have meaning. Powerful meaning, like, first song we did use a blessing song, you know. Not to be messed with, not to be played with. It's been around for a long time.”
The group was created in 2019 with the intention of attracting youth to learn traditional dances passed down from generations.
“You know, I was just pointing out, you know, the history of, you know, how things used to be, you know. The Elders used to be very strict with who can drum, who can dance, who can sing. If you didn't dance, you know, with meaning like stretching your arms out, moving your body, moving your neck, you are not permitted to dance, you know. And if you are a drummer and you are off tune, or off beat, you are not permitted to drum. And that's kind of what I was trying to, you know, let out, implement, let the dancers really express themselves,” Agimuk said.
The drum sticks are rigid like bone. An extension of their hands, pushing each beat through the air. Bodies sway like trees, sometimes slow like a calm spring breeze. Sometimes they shake like trees during an early fall storm. They stop moving when the drums stop beating.
This is a glimpse of Cama-i.
“It's very big. It's very popular. You'll see groups from around the state, so you'll see different kinds of dancing. Each of them are unique, all their groups are unique in their own way. So, you know, you're not going to be bored. You're not going to be bored, I'll tell you that,” Agimuk said matter-of-factly.
Heads bob like birds. Voices reverberate. They all know these verses well. Passed from the creator to the Elders, and now to youth. The sun sets. It’s getting late. On stage, all the Elders sway in rhythmic syncopation. Some sing, some dance if they’re physically able to. Most bob, but they all move until they are satisfied; only then will the rehearsal stop.