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Preston Kapakatoak, 15, has performed in competition dancing for much of his youth but it has been over four years since he has tasted victory at home. He competed at the Square dance Showdown in Gjoa Haven three years ago, but didn’t win. On home turf and performing in front of his friends and family he has an edge.

Competing in Kugluktuk is “amazing; it’s fun to hear the crowd,” he says.

He originally joined Ukaliit Numiqtiit, the youth dance troupe, to “stay out of trouble and have something to do in a small community” but now he is passionate about dance.

“Learning to jig with the whole group and thinking of how to improve the dance” is the hardest part of preparing for a big competition, he notes.

For Preston, competing in Kugluktuk also “means a lot to keep our culture going.”

The annual Square dance Showdown is a major showcase of regional traditional dance talent in the Kitikmeot. Often the event is hosted in the epicentre of dance in the region: Gjoa Haven, which boasts a strong contingent of teams and wide community support led by the Amauligak young adult dance troupe.

This year, Helena Bolt brings Kugluktuk into the dance spotlight. A high school teacher and coach of the Ukaliit Numiqtiit youth dance troupe, she is at the head of the growing dance movement in Kugluktuk. Now she is trying to bring high-level competition back to Kugluktuk.

It’s been four years since Kugluktuk has seen the competition at home. With the competition at home, all four local dance troupes are guaranteed a chance to participate.

In preparation for the return of the competition to Kugluktuk, Ukaliit Numiqtiit has been steadily fundraising for years. Local contributions have topped out at $10,000, fundraised through Bingos and community dances.

For Kugluktukmiut, jigging is about more than just dance.

“They feel honoured that they are represen – ting their community and whatever was passed on to them and what was passed on from elders. Obviously we don’t jig like the elders did but the culture part is still there,” says Bolt.

Edna Elias, a competition judge agrees, recognizing how integral dance is to growing up in Kugluktuk. “It makes me very proud of the dancers from Kugluktuk, when you’ve watched them right from elementary school up through high school. You see the progression in their development,” she says.

Helena Bolt, juggling multiple responsibilities, is packing a family member while coaching her dance troupe and coordinating the Square Dance Showdown. © Jesse Ajayi
Helena Bolt, juggling multiple responsibilities, is packing a family member while coaching her dance troupe and coordinating the Square Dance Showdown. © Jesse Ajayi

On the final night of the showdown, with the crowd eager for the deciding round of dances, there is a break in the competition to honour tradition and history. The leaders of each of the six competing groups perform an honour dance in recognition of an important person in their lives or in their community.

The simple gesture is filled with emotion as each pair explains — often through tears — which person they have chosen. Most honour an elder who has encouraged their love of dancing. The crowd waits patiently while they take time to jig and to remember.

When the competition resumes, the best overall performing teams compete for a $3,000 cash prize.

Preston’s Ukaliit Numiqtiit has made the top three. They perform their final dance, and by a margin of one point, win the Showdown!

Jubilant, and pressed to describe the feeling of winning with home crowd support, Preston manages just one word: “lovely.”

Jesse Ajayi is a community planner living and working in Kugluktuk, Nunavut.