Stomping his feet and jumping up to match the tempo, 5-year-old Edward Long looked focused and calm at Quyana Alaska on Friday night. A slightly surprised smile lit up his face when the crowd roared, asking him for an encore performance of his solo dance.
This was the first time Edward had performed alone, but as soon as the sealskin drums started singing again, without a blink he went back to aggi, Iñupiaq dancing.
“He has aggi in his heart and you can tell how much it means to him,” said Barrow Dancers member Mary Lum Patkotak. “It’s an extraordinary feeling to see someone so young doing what they love. Eddie is our showstopper for sure!”
Edward is a member of Barrow Dancers, whose performers were among 11 dance groups taking the stage at Quyana Alaska this year. The program is a highlight of the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, with performances happening over two nights.
This year’s Barrow Dancers performance was dedicated to the late Craig George, a longtime biologist and bowhead whale researcher on the North Slope who died in a boating accident earlier this year in Interior Alaska.
“He was a (bowhead whale) expert and contributed greatly to our community, aligning Western science right alongside our traditional knowledge. He was given the title of honorary whaling captain,” Patkotak said. “His widow donated a large amount to the dance group for us to be able to come here. So we’re going to dedicate every song, every jumpy and every movement in memory of George because we loved him so much.”
Barrow Dancers are always a crowd favorite, but on Friday, Edward seemed to take the spotlight. With elders and other performers sitting behind him, the boy danced with other men in the group before coming forward on his own and performing a dance that represented a bowhead whale hunt.
“Edward is an excellent performer already,” veteran drummer and dancer Herman Ahsoak said. “He knows most of the men’s dances we do.”
That knowledge started sinking in very early in Edward’s life, said his mother, Stella Okpeaha.
“It all started with his grandpa,” she said. “When Edward was maybe 6 months old, he was laying him on his belly and he would motion his arms around.”
As Edward grew older, at about 2 years old, he started watching videos of Eskimo dancing on YouTube, Okpeaha said. Then he started putting it into practice and amazed his parents with how many motions he knew.
Last year, Edward traveled with Barrow Dancers to AFN for the first time, bringing happy tears and excitement to his mother and other dancers in the group.
“They’re saying, one day he’s gonna be the leader of the dance group,” Okpeaha said.
Ahsoak added, “The younger they start, the better, so they will remember the dances the rest of their life.”