After graduating from High School in the early 70s, I joined a small modern dance company in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The Canadian government had quite a bit of money back then and many of our dances were commissions from New York choreographers. In the spring – at the very end of our season, we went on an ‘outpost tour’ of remote settlements – bouncing across the vast expanse of northern Canada in a little plane to perform for for miners, oilmen, natives and government administrators.
Our first performance was in Churchill, Manitoba, which is on the southernmost tip of Hudson’s Bay. The audience that night was full – about 300 souls – comprised almost entirely of natives from the Cree nation. For the big finale we performed ‘Country Music’ choreographed by Sophie Maslow to Cajun music by Doug Kershaw. The boys were dressed in brightly colored one strap overalls covered with fringe that made us look like big puffed up monkeys. The girls were wearing ‘Dollie Mae’ outfits with polka dot halter tops and briefs covered with fringe. They also looked like monkeys. It was a really light piece – A fun battle of the sexes! – and we had smiles pasted on our faces the whole time. The only respite from the festivities was a sad solo I performed called “Lonesome Rubin”. Outcast and alone I be-wept my miserable state to the forlorn sound of railway horns and banjos. At the end of the solo I had regained my spirits and was happy again! – performing jumps, tricks, and a variety of multiple pirouettes. “Country Music” had been our crowd stopper. People loved it. That night as we reached the final moments of the work the whole cast was putting out massive amounts of fizzy, entertainment energy. The music whipped into a frenzy and in a final slam- bang tableau, the boys lifted the girls overhead in spectacular lifts. Big air-bite smile and BLACK OUT!
We had performed “Country Music” over a hundred times that year and it had never failed to elicit enthusiastic applause. That night as we got into place in the dark for bows there was not a sound. The lights came up and we bowed in complete silence. The lights went down and we walked off stage without a single person applauding. The audience stood up and quietly walked out.
At the party after the show people seemed genuinely appreciative. They’d liked the show. I asked why no one applauded. A woman explained to me there was no tradition of applause in their tribe. It wasn’t dignified to applaud.
Over the years I have so often been reminded of this moment and how clearly it was illustrated that each culture has it’s own language.