Yoga students in the three-legged dog pose during a recent class at Saimavik.

by Kathleen Lippa

Dancers at the Saimavik studio suddenly freeze when they notice that the gumboots they dance in leave hideous black marks on the bamboo floor. When it turns out the scuffs come off easily, the dancers relax, and continue preparing for Toonik Tyme.

“It’s not a Nunavut dance,” explains Maxine Carroll, one of the leaders of the Gumboots Dance movement in Iqaluit. “But we’re infusing it with elements that touch us, and that we’re inspired by.” This means that in the midst of boot stomping with gusto, the dancers also break into throat-singing and human-beatbox — a clever urban/Northern blend that Saimavik studio founder Christine ‘Lil*Bear’ Lamothe loves. Later, the boisterous Toonik Tyme audience fell into pin-drop silence when the dancers started to kick up their rubber heels, Lamothe says. The Gumboots dancers were later invited to perform at Nunavut Day.

Gumboots Dance originated in South Africa, where miners staged defiant dances wearing their Wellington boots. “This dance resonates because it’s about struggle and being strong,” Lamothe explains in her husky, authoritative voice during a break at Saimavik. “It’s about standing up for what you believe in. To stomp our feet and have people listen.”

Yoga01-JA2014Saimavik is Iqaluit’s first dance and yoga studio. Created by Lamothe and her partner Gary Quinangnaq Philip, Saimavik offers regular yoga classes, Pilates, Zumba, and ballroom dancing, and can also be rented for events and meetings. Requests for more family-friendly programs at the studio also prompted Lamothe to add Zumbini classes for kids – a spin-off from the wildly popular Zumba fitness craze. “We want programming that is conducive to uplifting people,” says Lamothe. “I came up here to make a difference. And I have grown so much as a person.”

Dancing, of course, is nothing new in the Arctic. Drum dancing, square dancing, anyone feeling the Inukness (thanks to Anguti Johnston on YouTube), even those moves happening on the floor of the Iqaluit Legion on Friday night, are all part of Northern dance history. But serious dancers, as well as yogis and Pilates students, have had to make due in whatever space was available until now.

Saimavik (which means Place of Happiness in Inuktitut) opened March 29, and about 70 people are currently enrolled in programs. The spring schedule includes yoga for beginners, and classes with names like: Yin/Yang and Mindfulness, NunaYin and Ullaakut Saima Yin, Saima Flow and Qulaani/Lunch Yoga, Power Flow/Power Vinyasa, Zumba, and different levels of Pilates. There is also a weekly traveller’s special — $40 gets you unlimited drop-in classes (and it’s $5 a week for a mat rental.) “Classes are designed so that beginners feel at home,” Lamothe says.

Still basking in the glow of her new enterprise, Lamothe has already faced the less-than-glamorous aspects of running a business, like dealing with water damage. But when the Iqaluit by-law officer surveying her property spent the first few minutes complimenting her on the renovation, she had to smile.

Long-time Iqaluit resident and director of the Alianait Arts Festival, Heather Daley, attends yoga classes at Saimavik. “I’m giving myself time for me,” says Daley. “It’s something I don’t do often enough. And I’m gradually getting more flexible, more fit. Just feeling healthier.” Fresh from a lunch hour yoga class, Daley says yoga gives her a much-needed break in the middle of her day. She praised the teachers Lamothe has lined up, and the staff ’s openness to all students, regardless of level, and went on to say, “Having a place like that, where people can go and focus on themselves, on getting healthy and taking care of themselves is so nice.”

Daley knows it’s not easy running a business in Iqaluit. “It’s a big leap. There are entrepreneurial activities in Nunavut like in almost no other place in Canada. If you’re smart and you have a good plan, you are organized and create something the public wants, you can do well. It’s also extremely expensive to do anything up here.”

yoga03-JA2014Never one to back down from a battle (dance or otherwise) Lamothe dug in her heels in Iqaluit’s red-hot housing market when a bidding war ensued for the property. “I took a leap and I got it,” she says. Celebrating that achievement was soon followed by a heap of relentless, backbreaking work. “This place was completely gutted,” Lamothe says. “It was dark, and just disgusting. The floors were wet. The insulation was wet. We could barely lift it to throw it out. We did tonnes of dump runs.” With $65,000 in funding from the Baffin Business Development Corporation, Lamothe flew to Montreal to start shopping for material to build the studio. She agonized over everything from colour schemes to flooring, eventually settling on a soothing mauve hue for the studio walls. Lamothe’s boyfriend and his friends and family did the bulk of the renovations. But she was in there getting her hands dirty too. “I love mudding and taping walls,” she says. “I’m pretty good at it. Sanding the walls is tough, though. That’s a job and a half.”

Quality was an essential feature of the project. “We wanted to show Iqaluit this is a place that really cares about you. We didn’t go cheap,” she says. “We put a lot of time, love and effort into it. And people can feel it. We tell people in class, ‘You have any baggage? Leave it in this house. This house can handle it. Drop it here. This place recycles your crap. Like compost,’” she says with a laugh before taking on a more serious tone.

“There is a lot of trauma here in town,” she adds. “There is a lot of negativity – anywhere you go, not just Iqaluit. But it’s under a microscope here. You see it all. It’s a small town. You can’t escape from seeing pain and suffering.”

Raised on Ottawa’s west side in the Crystal Beach neighbourhood, Lamothe says she was a high-energy kid with no direction in life. “I did terrible in school,” she says. “I was a dropout. I was into drugs. I was stealing cars. I was a shoplifter. That was my former life.” Kicked out of school, Lamothe attended behavioural therapy sessions she says did little for her at the time. “I’d sit with my counsellor and
try to fix things, but it just wasn’t working. Then I went to my first rave and I danced all night long, and something completely shifted. I went to school the next day, and I was like, ‘I’m graduating from this program.’ The teachers were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, Christine, we’ve heard this before.’ I was like, ‘No. I mean it.’ I graduated in a month. I finally channelled this insane amount of energy I had into something good.”

She realized that she really loved to dance. But the rave scene “got old,” she says. “I just had to get out of there. And I needed to dance. But I had no money. So breakdancing was perfect!” Her ex-boyfriend was excelling in the breakdance scene in Ottawa at the time, so she thought, “‘I’m going to get really good at this – beat him at his own game.”

She started teaching, and performed with an all-female dance crew. She also showed a flair for organizing events, as hundreds of people flocked to dance gigs she put in motion. By the time Lamothe arrived in Iqaluit in February 2006, her transformation to empowered dance leader was well underway.

She first came North as a member of the Canadian Floormasters dance crew. But her Northern connection began earlier. “My mother had talked to me about the Arctic,” Lamothe says today. “Going out on the land on a Honda and watching the Northern Lights in the early days of Nunavut.” When her mom returned from working as a midwife in Rankin Inlet, Puvirnituq and Inukjuaq, Lamothe heard stories about a land that she would one day make her own.

“The week I was here was magical,” Lamothe recalls of her first trip to Iqaluit with her dance crew. “I don’t know if it’s been as magical in any other community as it was here. It was so moving. Kids who were total dropouts started doing well in school. There was a shift in energy here. We worked those kids so hard. It was amazing. And I felt like, ‘Now I have a cause worth investing in.’”

Lamothe put the word out she wanted to live in the North, and landed a job as day camp co-ordinator with the City of Iqaluit. She bought a four-wheeler, and was soon out on the land, breathing in the cool air, and chilling at all-night bonfires. But choosing the North had its rough patches. Lamothe’s departure from Canadian Floormasters’ crew in Ottawa was turbulent – a story she doesn’t want to talk about, only saying: “It will come out in a book I write someday.”

Even though Lamothe was well educated, having graduated from Algonquin College’s Recreation Facility Management program, she admits she was “not sure initially what would happen” in Iqaluit. After her much loved day camp experience, she found a job leading a tobacco reduction program in the territory, and for the last six years has worked for the Government of Nunavut as a physical activity specialist. But today she says she’s not a “government person,” adding, “It’s too big a ship to steer.”

Melanie Lalonde, Lamothe’s best friend since childhood in Ottawa, is proud of Lamothe’s daring moves up North.
“If anyone can do it, it’s her,” says Lalonde. “She can take a kid who is going down the wrong path and be the first to point it out, to talk to them about it. She wants to keep them occupied and focused on themselves instead of bad influences.”

When Lalonde first heard her best friend was moving to Iqaluit, she thought, “I will never see her again!” But Lamothe makes a point of visiting whenever possible, and Lalonde is grateful. “You soak up her energy when you’re around her. She brings it out of you. Every time I see her I’m always so happy. You just feed off her energy.”

Lalonde recalls her pal valiantly trying to school her on dance routines popularized by Fresh Prince of Bel Air and DJ Jazzy Jeff as early as Grade 4 in Kanata. “She’d be teaching me all the steps in the schoolyard,” Lalonde says, laughing. “She picked it up like it was nothing.” Lamothe’s success will flow from who she truly is at heart, says Lalonde. “I know she’ll do well, becoming her own boss and having her own business. Taking care of herself and the people around her, that’s what she does best.”

“In the world of breakdancing, I believe that when you can battle with other people, you’re pretty tough,” says Ottawa-based yoga teacher and life coach Ichih Wang, talking with fondness about Lamothe. “Christine is tough.” Wang was Lamothe’s teacher at the Rama Lotus Yoga Centre in Ottawa, and could see that the dancer from Crystal Beach was not your average yoga student. “She was very keen, diligent and focused,” Wang recalls. “Yet free and expressive. She would always talk to me before class, and ask questions after class. And a friendship built on that. She looks at you with those piercing blue eyes and says, ‘I’m here for you.’ And it sparkles. It’s clear. It’s clean. She invites you in.”

Sami Elkout, owner of The Flavor Factory Urban Dance School in Ottawa has known Lamothe for 13 years and calls the creation of the Saimavik studio “the best direction for her. She definitely did a lot of work like that in Ottawa. She helped me out a lot.” Elkout manages a professional bboy group and spent time in Whitehorse as a project manager for a national youth breakdancing forum. Elkout has never been to Nunavut, but says it will be much easier to plan a trip now that Saimavik is a reality. “I think it’s great,” he says. “I can’t wait to go up there and see it.”

With the nickname ‘Lil*Bear’ (asterisk intentional) it is easy to assume Lamothe was named in the North. Originally known as ‘Tactix’ in the breakdance world, an old dancing rival-turned-friend in Ottawa thought she looked more like a little bear when she danced on her hands, and the name clicked, years before Iqaluit was even a glint in her eye. “It’s perfect,” Lamothe says simply.

“I’ve always loved Aboriginal culture,” she adds. “This was my opportunity to get back to the earth. I was too disconnected in Ottawa. I could meditate and do yoga and be serene in these beautiful spaces. But could I be like that in a difficult place to live? So I demanded from the universe that I be sent somewhere where I could test what I’ve cultivated in myself.”

Hip-hop dancers operating in an underground way in Iqaluit gravitate towards Lamothe wherever she is. Recently, Saila Qayaq and Benny Sanguya were spinning and balancing on their hands at Saimavik as a funky mix of DJ music and James Brown thumped out of computer speakers in the corner. Wearing a worn-in Bob Marley tank top and red sneakers, Lamothe shared the floor with the guys, dancing on her hands like it was the most natural thing to do. For years, these underground breakdancers would work on their steps wherever they could, mostly at the Catholic community hall. Even without a full-time dance space, they were good enough to perform at the recent Indspire awards in Winnipeg on stage with 20 dancers and singers. It is clear watching them dance that Saimavik lives up to its name — Place of Happiness — as far as they’re concerned.

“It’s more homey,” says Qayaq, comparing the new studio to their old dance space in Iqaluit.

“I feel free when I’m dancing,” he says, adding, “I was never this physically fit before I started breakdancing.”They both want to dance forever. “I like being healthy and staying in shape,” Sanguya says.

Lamothe knows she can’t “save” everyone, her friend Wang says, but has created a space where people can dance, do yoga and let go. “She’s a pioneer,” says Wang. “I’ve watched her evolve and grow into this incredible teacher and businesswoman. She’s a strong, courageous woman. She is kind and funny and genuine. She continues to learn, and she takes her learning and shares it with her community. She walks the talk.”

Lamothe still takes time for her own yoga practise, grabbing a few moments by herself in the studio when she can. But dancing for her is a different story. It’s always a communal activity.

“I like people too much,” she laughs. “I don’t dance alone.”

Kathleen Lippa moved to Iqaluit in 2003 and was the editor of Nunavut News/North. Now a freelance writer, she lives in Ottawa and Iqaluit.