Story last updated at 7/29/2009 - 11:18 am
JUNEAU - It's hard for members of the Yees Ku Oo dance group to turn down an invitation to perform, especially when it's for young people.
"When the schools call and say, 'We need a dance group' ... everyone pretty much drops everything," said dance leader Carolyn Noe. "It's really hard to say no to the children."
Last time they were asked to come perform for a school class with only a few hours notice, 17 members of the troupe showed up.
The group had a bit more advance notice for their next engagement: they will perform at the Southeast Alaska State Fair in Haines at noon on Friday, July 31.
There are 36 members of the Yees Ku Oo troupe, which formed in 2003. The youngest member is three and a half, and the oldest is in her eighties. The group, whose name means "new beginnings," performs songs and dances from the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and Aleut traditions.
"We try to make sure we show the highest respect to all the songs," Noe said. "For us it's an honor to be able to sing the songs and share the stories behind the songs.
There are three elders in the group: Dolly Kvande, Lillian Austin and CC Unick, as well as advisors. The group has 28 songs in their song book and has followed the protocol to receive permission to perform each of them.
"We make sure we never change the story on a song and never change the tone on the song," Noe said. "We try to do them exactly as we're taught."
A typical performance lasts about half an hour and includes eight or nine songs, beginning with a warm-up and then an entrance song.
The group has performed throughout Alaska as well as out of state, including Washington, D.C. But, said Noe, "There's nothing like a performance at home in our own state."
"I like it when we bring down the house," said elder Dolly Kvande.
Twenty-two of the group members will perform in Haines. But the group will perform even when only a few members are available, said group member Nancy Barnes.
"One year we went to Metlakatla with five people," Barnes said. "Other groups had 30 people. We just had to sing and drum louder. We have fun (whether) it's five or six of us or 35 of us. We just love singing and drumming and dancing. I think we have a lot of respect for each other."
Adults in the group said they enjoy letting the group's younger members take center stage.
"It's wonderful to let the young ones step up," Barnes said. "That's what it's about. Sometimes it's good for us as adults to step back."
Added Noe: "Every single one of the youth is really involved and respectful to their elders."
Group member Everett Wright joined Yees Ku Oo because his son, Todd, was in the group. He recalled one practice at which Noe said, "We'd sure like to have Todd's father join us," and he couldn't say no.
"I've always watched Celebration performances and I thought it would be easy - until I got up there," Everett said.
When he had knee surgery he stopped dancing and tried drumming. Again, he thought drumming would be easy, but "there's nothing easy about it," he said.
But, he added, "If you love it... (when) you're drumming, you're dancing, you don't feel anything. The pain's gone. It is a healing process to dance and sing."