Hip Hop Hope: How Tristan Martell Choreographs His Culture and Finds Community
“Make sure you know in your heart where you want to go. It's better to aim like you have an arrow and a target and not be like a leaf being blown in every direction. Have actual passion and clarity of things that make you happy for a job. It just makes things that much smoother.” That’s the advice professional dancer Tristan Blackbird Martell has for youth considering going out to the city. He knows what he’s talking about because that was his journey.
Martell is from Waterhead Lake First Nations in northern Saskatchewan and was born in Edmonton, Alberta, a Plains Cree man with mixed ancestry. He’s done freelance projects in break, house and grass dance and trained in a competitive environment for breakdancing back in Edmonton. He moved to Toronto for some new adventures and learned a lot along the way.
Getting into dance first happened as part of Martell’s involvement in hip-hop culture at the encouragement of his friends. As a youth in inner-city schools, he was inspired by First Nations dancers, his peers who channelled their energy into dance and staying in school. He was also influenced by Tribe Called Red dance members that tour the world and by the powwow community to practice sobriety and exercise his skills within his traditions.
He got his GED in 2011 and did an internship at Anishinaabe Health and the Native Canadian Center. He was mentored by Tanis Nielsen, an art instructor, who helped him navigate the Centre to get support to train in grass dance as a consistent practice. The Centre is a Friendship Centre where Indigenous youth can come together to eat, learn and find community. Martell learned how to use his art skills with the grant writing and advocacy processes and be able to study and learn more.
Martell learned a lot there, working with the visiting schools' programs. He was able to travel with some Aztec and grass dancers. He brought dancers from the West to come and be mentored up at the Centre and as a group they learned and grew together. He gained important connections and trained for working with different dance studios. Outside of dance, Martell took some business courses, workshops and mentorships with elders, learning totem pole making and graphic design.
One of the biggest studio influences he had was at True Dance Academy where he worked with top choreographers and learned to invest in himself and to keep getting work through word of mouth. He’s been able to take his earnings and invest in more workshops, learning informally. Traditional and street dancing were two different worlds that provided a good balance for him. He was learning protocol, and the traditional practices of different nations, and gaining new skills through knowledge sharing.
His advice for students wanting to leave their community in order to pursue a career or post-secondary is to stick to their roots and know what their passion is, the thing that makes them happy. Martell encourages youth to see that as a possibility of future income and to take courses to get clarity around opportunities to make that happen in a way that makes sense for their life.
Networking with others in your discipline, connecting with as many people as possible who are very passionate about the same things are practices Martell advocated for, along with trying to centre yourself to be with your ancestors and know your language. Developing the discipline required to do that creates a clear pathway for post-secondary success and exercising abilities in the university environment.
Something that Martell considers to be really important when planning a big move is to make sure basic needs are met, by finding housing and places to get access to food and the support you need. It was something he was naive about and he encourages others to do their homework in advance. He was fortunate that a housing worker connected him with a housing situation that was a fit for them but it was a long wait to get in. His workers were checking on him to make sure he was okay. Dance was something that helped him find stress relief in that process and gave him more creative inspiration.
To keep his mental health in check during the pandemic, another challenging time, he found new ways to cope. His advice for others around that is to spend time in nature, do some planting and sun worshiping, to spend time barefoot on the ground, hug a tree, make favourite foods and call loved ones. He suggests turning off Netflix and video games and engaging in life. He talks with his ancestors daily and they guide him through the next steps he has to take to do the things he wants to do, whether that’s learning to pray in Cree or learning music. Those conversations were a therapeutic way to replace the socialization he was missing in the Friendship Centers and as part of the Powwow scene.
When he needs inspiration, Martell looks to First Nations communities, their leaders, youth and elders. He’s also inspired by hip-hop DJs, storytellers and the hip-hop community and the way they express themselves through DJing, graffiti, breakdancing and rapping. He loves to see the younger generation expanding on and learning from the art created by those that came before them.
Reflecting on what he would say to his younger self he shares, “ When you're talking to your younger self, you want the best for your younger self. It would be the discipline of dance to up my game.” He found as he was developing in his craft, he was confused and that was reflected in his choices. Through discipline, he could have been more established, but he’s doing well now.
Inspired by his peers, Tristan Martell found a love of dance. Through studios and the Native Canadian Centre, he was able to refine his craft and build a career for himself. He learned the steps from those around him and now he’s living his dance dreams. With grass, break and house dance, he’s moving with purpose. In connection with his ancestors, he’s learning how to choreograph with culture and keep his hip-hop hope alive.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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