Looking south over the snow-covered town of Arviat

Nunavut has the highest suicide rate of any province or territory in Canada.

But in the town of Arviat, young people have found salvation in dancing.

Their annual competitions have become legendary — and a way to heal emotional wounds.

Andy

Andy Evaloakjuk carries an astonishing amount of heartache for a man so young.

For much of his life, the 21-year-old resident of Arviat, Nunavut, has had to confront the reality of suicide.

Close family members have taken their lives. He also had to bury his best friend, Johnny.

“During his funeral at the church, I didn’t cry,” Andy said. It wasn’t until he watched Johnny’s coffin being lowered into the ground that he felt the full force of his loss.

“It broke my heart into a million pieces,” Andy said. “Once I started crying, I couldn’t stop.”

Andy himself has thought seriously about taking his life.

Last summer, his ex-girlfriend Elsie Gibbons killed herself.

“I wish … I could turn back time and save her life,” Andy said, “the way she saved mine.”

Coping with loss: Andy at home.
Coping with loss: Andy visiting the grave of his ex-girlfriend, Elsie.
Coping with loss: Andy also recently had to bury his best friend.
Coping with loss: Andy with his youngest sister, Louisa.

‘A tool for my emotions’

Arviat, an Inuit hamlet of about 2,800 located on the western shore of Hudson Bay, faces many of the same challenges as other remote Indigenous communities: poverty, lack of employment, overcrowded housing.

For many young people, the result is a toxic stew of boredom and a feeling that life will never improve.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the country’s national Inuit organization, reports there are more than 1,000 attempted suicide calls each year in Nunavut, which has a population of about 30,000 people.

The suicide rate is 11 times higher than the national average and the majority of these deaths are people under 30, according to Statistics Canada. In 2015, Nunavut's premier declared a suicide crisis in the territory.

“Suicide is a big problem here in this town,” Andy said. But in recent years, he and like-minded youth have found a way to counter their sadness by channeling their emotional energy into teen dance nights.

Tapping into a world of club-ready sounds available on YouTube, they choreograph complex routines that combine traditional Inuit dancing with moves seen in the latest pop music videos.

Andy said it has become an obsession.

“Without teen dance here, it would be a boring town,” said Andy. “People would not know what to do or where to go.”

More than just a way of passing the time, teen dance has become a necessary distraction.

“I use my dancing as … a tool for my emotions,” said Andy. “When I dance, I think about other people.”

Music has had a palpable effect on youth in the community, said Doreen Ikakhik, co-founder of Sila Rainbow, an organization that stages events for young people in Arviat.

“Dance keeps kids away from dark things,” she said.

While teen dance nights happen once or twice a week, the crowning event is the annual Sila Rainbow Dance Competition.

For Andy and his peers, this artistic expression is a way to heal some psychic wounds.

But winning the competition would make it all the sweeter.

Life in Arviat: Taking a joyride in Arviat.
Life in Arviat: Cleaning up after a seal hunt.
Life in Arviat: Cycling at dusk.
Life in Arviat: Swinging under the porch.
Life in Arviat: Playdates in Arviat often involve dancing to the music of Gigi D’Agostino.
Life in Arviat: The northern lights are a regular feature of the night sky in Arviat.

Irresistible beats

In preparation for the contest, kids in Arviat practise at home, often in their living rooms, in front of an audience of family members.

First prize in the Sila Rainbow competition is $2,000 — and year-long bragging rights.

Last year’s event took place Dec. 16 and 17 at the John Ollie Complex, a community centre that hosts just about every major event in town, from political meetings to weddings.

And teen dance nights, of course.

For the Sila Rainbow, contestants can choose any music they want. Many opt for pop favourites such as Justin Bieber and Rihanna, but an outsize number of them dance to the music of Gigi D’Agostino, an Italian DJ and producer who gained popularity in Europe and has a fervent following in Arviat.

It may seem curious that kids here have fallen for a somewhat obscure Italian DJ, but they say D’Agostino’s slicing, bass-heavy beats have a lot in common with the music of traditional Inuit drum-dancing.

“We love to listen to Gigi,” said Malachi Poungalak, speaking on behalf of many young Arviat dancers.

Malachi, 21, and his friend Shelton Nipisar, 22, make up the dance crew Cyber-Optix. Their highly synchronized routines include a lot of robot-like moves, which other dancers have copied.

Malachi and Shelton have won the Sila Rainbow three years running and are the envy of many Arviat youth.

Which also makes them the ones to beat.

Light on their feet: Shelton Nipisar, left, and Malachi Poungalak, make up the dance crew Cyber-Optix.

Peter and Ian

Half-brothers Peter Aliktiluk and Ian Alikaswa approach their craft with a sense of humour.

Set to D’Agostino’s music, their exuberant act mixes bits of breakdancing with comical flourishes — like the way Ian will sometimes grab Peter’s head and jiggle it like a martini shaker.

“When I dance, I feel happy,” said Peter, 20. “It’s like my mind wants to make people laugh.”

Practising in their living room in front of their siblings, Peter and Ian often dance themselves into a sweaty lather.

You would never suspect a deep despair.

Peter’s sister took her life last year. Ian, 24, has cousins and friends who have died of suicide and admits he was entertaining similarly dark thoughts when he was 15.

“But that’s not the answer,” he said.

Despite placing second in the Sila Rainbow last year, Peter and Ian were dubious about competing again this year. That is, until a youngster in the community approached Peter with a heartfelt request.

“Some kid came to me and said, ‘Are you going to dance again? Please dance again, because I love the way you move.’”

How could they possibly resist?

“So we are going to try to dance again this year with funny moves,” said Peter. “It will remind people to keep going and going — and not give up.”

Healing through dance: Ian Alikaswa breakdances in a relative’s kitchen.
Healing through dance: Ian and his half-brother, Peter Aliktiluk, rest after a practise session.
Healing through dance: Ian and Peter make a vow to give their all at the Sila Rainbow Dance Competition.

LucyLynn and MaryAnne

Sisters LucyLynn and MaryAnne Issumatarjuak prepared for the 2016 competition hoping to atone for the last time.

In 2015, despite their best efforts, they placed fourth — behind a group of male dancers who only seemed to be goofing around.

“It wasn’t really fair,” said LucyLynn, 19. “I hope it’s different this year.”

The sisters are gentle and soft-spoken, but they take dancing very seriously.

“When I’m outraged, like, with everything that’s happened, I just put headphones on and start dancing and it calms me down,” said LucyLynn.

“When I’m angry or I’m sad, I just … dance it off,” said MaryAnne, 20.

This time around, they decided to dance in honour of their beloved late grandfather, David Issumatarjuak. Dubbing themselves Issumatarjuak’s Granddaughters, they hoped his memory would provide them with emotional and spiritual guidance.

“He was always filled with happiness when he was dancing,” said LucyLynn. “We love dancing, and it was our way of connecting [with him].”

Honouring their grandfather: MaryAnne Issumatarjuak strikes a pose while her family looks on.
Honouring their grandfather: MaryAnne and her family open presents on Christmas Day.
Honouring their grandfather: MaryAnne and her sister, LucyLynn, are passionate about dance.

The big event

Half of Arviat streamed into the John Ollie Complex in late December to witness the 2016 Sila Rainbow competition. The rest tuned in on the local radio station or social media (mainly Facebook).

It’s a two-day event — the field of competitors that dance on Day 1 are whittled down to a group of nine finalists that perform on Day 2. To avoid any favouritism, the judges all come from outside the community.

Each performer had their own preparation to ensure a good performance.

Andy went through his moves in meditative silence.

Peter and Ian donned matching white Nike wristbands and made a pledge to banish their shyness once they started dancing.

LucyLynn and MaryAnne ate pieces of maktaaq, or raw whale skin, to give them the energy to perform well.

Getting ready: Ian, right, tells Peter that he will leave his shyness “in the bed.”
Getting ready: Ian prepares himself in the mirror, while a housemate looks on.
Getting ready: Andy gets in the zone.
Getting ready: LucyLynn and MaryAnne eat maktaaq, or whale skin, before their performance.

Once they hit the dance floor, they were all transformed.

Clad in a ball cap and an oversized hoodie, Andy became a whirlwind of fleet footwork.

True to form, Peter and Ian amused the crowd with their “funny moves,” which at times involved springing around like bugs and gesticulating like chickens.

Meanwhile, LucyLynn and MaryAnne did a winsome, synchronized routine to Justin Bieber’s Sorry.

While the mood was ultimately celebratory, the organizers used the event to sound a warning about the community’s suicide problem.

On the first night, there was a moment of silence for the people who had taken their lives.

On the second night, Peter’s dad, Paul Aliktiluk, stood up and made an impassioned plea to Arviat youth who may have entertained such dark, self-sabotaging thoughts themselves.

After initially speaking in Inuktitut, he switched to English.

“Think about your parents. Think about your siblings,” he said, his voice rising in emotion. “You are loved!”

The sentiment was painfully personal — Aliktiluk lost his daughter Keren to suicide in the summer of 2015.

Reverting to Inuktitut, he advised young people to seek the guidance of family members.

Once the finalists had performed on Day 2, a nervous hush fell over the crowd as the judges delivered their verdict.

Cyber-Optix, the favourites, placed third — a shock.

Second place went to a young crew called Girls.

And Issumatarjuak’s Granddaughters took first.

LucyLynn and MaryAnne didn’t scream in jubilation — that’s not really their style. But they were clearly elated, and made their way through the crowd to collect their cheque and have their picture taken.

Peter and Ian were visibly deflated by the outcome. Andy, too.

But Ian took a philosophical view of it.

“We made people happy,” he said. “We'll be remembered when we're gone.”

Besides, how could he not be proud of MaryAnne and LucyLynn? Especially since MaryAnne is his half-sister, more proof of how the town is more or less a giant family.

“Even though we didn’t win, the people of Arviat were happy and that’s all that mattered.”

If the young men were disappointed by the results of the Sila Rainbow competition, those feelings faded when the lights dimmed and the hall turned into a pulsing discotheque — and another teen dance night.

They were in their element once more. And their bodies knew precisely what to do.

If you or someone you know needs support or is considering suicide, there is help.

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(Inuktitut services available)
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