The doors of the Morris Thompson Visitor Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, open onto a small amphitheater topped by a dangling small airplane—a nod to the area’s rich aviation history. But as I step into the entrance corridor, made narrow by chairs lined up to either side, another type of history is on display.
It’s a chilly Thursday in March, and, outside, there’s snow on the ground. But inside the people are sweating, laughing, twirling and stepping as they take their turns at the group dances and the solo jigging steps of a traditional Gwich’in Athabascan fiddle dance.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the wild fling of the fiddle and a thundering bass line that would have made Johnny Cash proud are coming from an old-time country band, but instead they’re the voice of a tradition that was born when fur traders brought their fiddle music and dance steps with them to Alaska.
The indigenous Gwich’in Athabascan people liked what they heard. They adopted the songs, the fiddle tunes and the steps and made them their own, a sparkling kaleidoscope throwing reflections of the Scottish, Irish and Quebecois dances I’ve been exposed to, wed to the shuffle of a pow-wow step and a something uniquely Gwich’in that creates a unified whole.
The dancing is alternately graceful and wild, steered by master fiddlers who take turns at the head of the band and a pair of dance callers that are the first to beckon people up for a new dance or steer newcomers through the steps. Sometimes chaos ensues but eventually we all fall into the rhythm, swirling in a massive circle of moving people that is, despite its size and shape, classified as a square dance.
Beaded moccasins and vests keep close company with shirts that cheerfully declare “Get Your Jig On!” and I alternately watch and dance, watch and dance, as old folks, young folks and visitors like me all offer our dancing feet in service of the tunes. There’s a quick breather as one of the guitar players sings a song in French, then it’s back out onto the floor in a dance of two lines facing each other, hooking elbows and spinning each other around by both hands until we’re all adequately dizzy.
If you’d like to try your hand at one of these spirited dances, there are at least two a year—one in mid-March and another in mid-November. The dances usually run well into the night for several days in a row, with admission around $15/person per night. There may be a low-key class for beginners at the start of the evening but, as with most vibrant folk dance traditions, if you bring a good attitude you’ll often be invited to learn on the fly. Visit the special events schedules at tananachiefs.org and morristhompsoncenter.org for schedule details. Plan your stay in Fairbanks at explorefairbanks.com.