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Finding Their Own Dance
June 7, 2006

A Calvin College professor has earned a pair of grants that, combined with a trio of Calvin grants, will help fund a project that will take her to Alaska for a five-month journey.

Ellen Van'tHof, a dance professor at the college, earned $6,000 from the Alaska Humanities Forum and $6,000 from Alaska's CIRI Foundation for a documentary film she plans to produce called "Finding Their Own Dance: Reawakening the Alutiiq Arts."

Those grants are in addition to funding from Calvin via a Mellema Western American Studies Grant, a Calvin Alumni Association grant and a Calvin Research Fellowship.

Van'tHof will work on the project from July through November 2006, based on the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island (located south and west of Anchorage). She plans to partner on the documentary with Calvin graduate Rob Prince, a professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Their 55-minute documentary will illuminate the art of the Alutiiq people who have lived primarily in south central Alaska and Kodiak Island for over 7,500 years.

Says Van'tHof: "Their culture has been shaped by their environment: rugged coastal mountains, volcanoes, forests, rivers and especially the sea. Their arts and dances, rich in symbolism and cultural significance, tell their stories."

She notes that having nearly lost their ancient culture through centuries of conquest and exploitation by first the Russians and then the Americans, the 3,500 remaining Alutiiq natives began a cultural renaissance in the 1980s.

Today, she says, new art is emerging - everything from mask-carving, drum-making and regalia design to songwriting and dance choreography.

"The documentary," she says, "will tell a story of rediscovery - who the Alutiiq people were, who they are and who they are becoming."

She also hopes to examine the generational interactions: what do the elders consider most important to teach and preserve, how are they teaching the younger generations and how does the younger generation feel about their culture?

The cultural rediscovery reflected in the arts and dance of the Alutiiq people has been underreported and little known outside of Native American circles says Van'tHof.

"This exciting and pivotal time of reawakening in the native culture, evidenced particularly in the arts, is the story that needs to be told and shown," she says.

To that end she and Prince plan to supplement the documentary with a project website that will include film clips, updates, educational resources and more.

Van't Hof has been a professor of dance at Calvin for over 30 years and her research has encompassed many facets of dance education and dance in culture. Prince has worked for a decade as a film producer and director and earned the Audience Choice Award at the Northern Lights Documentary Film Festival for his 2005 PBS-released documentary film "Making Choices: The Dutch Resistance During World War II."

The pair is planning for a December 2007 release of the film and hoping to have it shown on a wide variety of outlets: everything from Alaska Public Broadcasting Network to Alaska Native tribal or village councils to Native American centers and museums across the country.

"No firm commitments are in place," says Van'tHof, "but the specific target for the broadcast distribution of this project will be public television. We believe the themes of this documentary will be of interest to public television stations around North America."