Church hosts Athabascan dancing instruction

Fairbanks, Alaska (AP) 2-09

A church in Fairbanks is doing its part to help preserve Athabascan culture.

People gathered recently in the parish hall at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church to learn more about Athabascan dancing. Bella Jean Savino led a group of smiling children and adults while fiddler Jerry Frank and guitarist Pete Peters provided music.

Athabascan dancing lessons are only one part of Dancing with the Spirit, a musical outreach project. The project is designed to connect children and elders and preserve Athabascan fiddle music and dancing, while building self esteem and delivering a spiritual message.

Savino slipped on a pair of traditional beaded moosehide dancing slippers just before the music started.

“Music is such a happy, joyful activity, and you can express your sadness too,” said the project’s director, the Rev. Belle Mickelson of Cordova.


Dancing With the Spirit musicians, sponsored by the Alaska Episcopal Church, have been dropping into rural communities by plane with a bagful of instruments and an upbeat repertoire of tunes prepared to teach guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo and bass.

In the past two years, aided by diocesan funding and the support of village schools and tribal councils, 10 summer camps and 12 schools have been involved in the Dancing with the Spirit program.

Mickelson said it only takes a few days to learn the chords and start flatpicking. To accommodate little fingers, the younger children often start with the mandolin.

Wherever they are invited, the musicians team up with the village and the schoolteachers, Mickelson said, and each village designs its own program.

“We are hoping that one village will teach another,” Mickelson said.

Peters, assistant project director, said music can help in the struggle against alcoholism, drug abuse and high suicide rates.

“This is a weapon we have against suicide. It brings joy to the community,” he said.