Jigging in the soul: Asham Stomperfest, Manitoba's Red River Jig festival, marks 15 years

With a swirl of skirts and a flurry of fiddle music, Manitoba's Red River jig festival is underway in a western Manitoba farmyard for the 15th year running this weekend.

Manitoba Red River jig festival runs Aug. 30-Sept. 2 near Kinosota

Red River jiggers perform at Stomperfest 2012. (Submitted/Bruce Chartrand)

With a swirl of skirts and a flurry of fiddle music, Manitoba's Red River jig festival is underway in a western Manitoba farmyard for the 15th year running this weekend.

The Asham Stomperfest, which celebrates the traditional Métis Red River jig as well as square dancing done in Indigenous communities, marked the anniversary when it kicked off on Friday.

The festival is named for its founder, Arnold Asham, and held on the family farm where Asham's grandmother lived and where he and his siblings were born, near Kinosota, Man., about 165 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. He still remembers dancing there as a child.

Now 68, Asham is also the namesake of the dance team the Asham Stompers, and he performs with them regularly.

"It's basically in my soul," Asham said.

A stage juts off the farm house on Arnold Asham's family farm, where his grandmother lived and he was born. (Submitted/Bruce Chartrand)

Asham figures he must have been taught to jig young, because he can't remember learning. But it wasn't until he was in his 50s that he started the Asham Stompers and took up dancing in an organized way.

For a while, the group performed only at other festivals, Asham said. But after encountering racism on the festival circuit, he realized they could host a festival of their own.

"I looked around the yard and I thought, man, we could have our own festival. We didn't need to depend on other people to hire us," he said. "In two months, we ran a festival and we got about 600 people in."

Arnold Asham dances up a storm with the Asham Stompers at a Folklorama kick-off event Tuesday. The experts of the Red River Jig are hosting the Métis pavilion this year at the Heather Curling Club at 120 Youville Street. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

In its first year, the festival took a loss, Asham said. Fifteen years later, they've started making profit on some years' events, and their annual attendance is between 2,500 and 3,000. They've booked performers including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Trooper and, this year, Sierra Noble.

The festival also hosts the World Jigging Championships, the finals of which are scheduled for 2 p.m. this Sunday.

"Our mission as stompers is to help recapture and preserve the history of the Métis people through the dancing of the Red River Jig," he said.

"We dance to bring hope to kids in our community who are struggling from a lack of self-esteem."

'It just brings such joy'

For those who've never seen it, Asham said the jig can be described like a song:

"There's a chorus and a verse and a chorus and a verse," he said. "And the choruses are all the same, of course, and the verses are all different. It's called the step and the change."

Dancers perform at the Metis Pavilion in this year's Folklorama. (Submitted/Bruce Chartrand)

From his childhood, Asham remembers the tradition of adults throwing money to encourage young kids to dance. The tradition is still alive today and some of the Stompers have garnered up to $900 in a weekend that way.

His first significant memory of square dance is when he was eight or nine, and his dad built stairs up to their barn's loft to host a dance.

"The yard filled and not everybody could get into the barn. My uncles were all big guys, maybe 260, 280 pounds, my aunts weren't far behind at 200," he said. "When they started to do this Red River jig, the whole barn started to shake and us kids ran for cover."

Dancers take the stage at Asham Stomperfest 2012. (Submitted/Bruce Chartrand)

There are challenges in organizing the dance festival and the group, Asham said. Sometimes, Indigenous dancers feel their culture doesn't fit in at other types of festivals.

Dancers don't sign contracts, so it can be difficult, if not impossible, to ensure the team delivers the same show, as advertised, at each event, he added.

This year, the Stompers hosted the Métis pavilion at Folklorama — the first Métis pavilion in eight years — just days after some dancers huddled in a basement during a tornado in the area of Alonsa, Man.

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But Asham said he loves seeing how happy it makes people.

"The way we're affecting the public, I just can't help but keep doing it because it just brings such joy to our fans," he said. "We see it every day, every night."

A young jigger performs at Stomperfest 2012. (Submitted/Bruce Chartrand)

Back when the dance group first started, Asham said some of the young dancers didn't deserve to be on the floor with the older jiggers. Now, he says it's the other way around.

"What you give comes back 10 times," Asham said.

"It's not what I've done for these kids, it's what these kids have done for me. They've probably increased how long I'm going to live by 10 or 15 years by being so active and dancing 100 times a year and practice and travel and always being active. That's worth a lot."