8-year-old Em Pitawanakwat part of music video

Chance meeting lands hoop dancer starring role, new friends

TORONTO – A happenstance encounter on July 1 caused the world of an eight-year-old girl with Wiikwemkoong roots and a Toronto recording artist to collide, cementing a new friendship and opening doors for the little girl.

Sara Pitawanakwat, formerly of Wiikwemkoong, told The Expositor that she, daughter Emilee Ann and a cousin attended the July 1 Every Child Matters (ECM) walk in downtown Toronto. Ms. Pitawanakwat donned her ribbon skirt for the event, while Emilee Ann decided she wanted to dress in full regalia. She has been dancing fancy shawl since she was a tiny tot, but had recently discovered a love of hoop dancing, and on that day Emilee Ann wore her hoop dancing regalia and brought her hoops and a hand drum to the event too. She had no idea she would soon be dancing before a crowd of thousands of people.

“Emilee Ann was 15 months old when she danced her first powwow, the New Year’s Eve powwow in Wiky—I knew I had a dancer on my hands,” Ms. Pitawanakwat shared. Her coming out ceremony happened at age 3.

While the trio were walking with the massive crowd, Andrea Ramolo happened to be walking nearby and Emilee Ann began to chat her up.

When the crowd gathered at Nathan Phillips Square following the ECM march, Emilee Ann, the sole hoop dancer at the event, was invited to come to the centre of the circle and dance. 

“‘Just remember, this is a healing dance, and you’re dancing for the children’,” Ms. Pitawanakwat whispered to her daughter. With those words, Emilee Ann entered the circle and began to dance.

“At the end there was such a huge applause,” the proud mom shared. “To me, it was deafening. I went to her with tears streaming down my face. She had danced for the children. I was just so proud of her. Andrea witnessed this; little did we know she was a recording artist.”

“It was a really beautiful event,” Ms. Ramolo recalled. “She carries so much wisdom and so much power, especially when she dances.” 

Ms. Ramolo and the Pitawanakwats immediately hit it off. Emilee Ann and Ms. Ramolo formed a connection as though they had known each other before, both told The Expositor.

“It was meant to be,” Ms. Pitawanakwat told The Expositor. “It was almost as if they were destined to meet.”

Ms. Ramolo is a recording artist, a multiple Canadian Folk Music Award nominee, in fact, and sometimes substitute teacher. Her newest album, her seventh, Quarantine Dream, is set to debut next month. Ms. Ramolo was getting ready to record the video for one of the tracks, ‘Free,’ alongside Indigenous hip hop alternative singer/songwriter Kinnie Starr, when she had a dream. ‘Free’ was playing and Emilee Ann was there.

Emilee Ann Pitawanakwat, left, and Andrea Ramolo snap a pic of their chance meeting during a July 1 Every Child Matters walk in Toronto.

“I woke up and immediately called Sara.” The family was happy to get involved. 

Ms. Ramolo explained that ‘Free’ is about coming together and speaking against the injustices around us. The song was sparked by the murder of George Floyd and speaks to the notion that ‘we can’t be free until we’re all free.’ “Silence is really violence. We need to rip apart the status quo—people are suffering.”

The teacher in Ms. Ramolo set about doing some workshop sessions with Emilee Ann, talking about what the word freedom meant to her and allowing her to express her thoughts on the word through arts and crafts.

When the video was shot, 18 days after their chance meeting, Emilee Ann is leading Ms. Ramolo through a forest. The video ends with the little girl hoop dancing, “the most healing of the dances.”

Action! Emilee Ann Pitawanakwat not only had a feature role in the music video for ‘Free’ she also helped behind the scenes.

Ms. Ramolo said she always wanted to have a child of her own, but at 41, she realizes this may not happen. She spoke of struggling with this reality during the lockdown days of the pandemic, and then Emilee Ann entered her life. “The love of a child kind of appeared in a different way,” she said. “(Sara) has accepted me into their lives. The family has kind of adopted me.”

“I love our relationship and I feel so blessed to have these women in my life,” she added.

Since July, Emilee Ann has been invited to be the head female dancer at X University’s (formerly Ryerson University) virtual powwow and the family is getting more requests for the little girl to dance. Ms. Pitawanakwat is a firm believer in the Anishinaabe teaching that infants are born fully equipped with all the knowledge they need. It is up to experiences they encounter in life to unlock this knowledge. Her dancing is testament to this teaching, her mom said.

“As long she loves doing it, I will continue to support her—I love watching her blossom and grow, I’m just so proud of her,” Ms. Pitawanakwat added.

Ms. Ramolo’s Quarantine Dream album can be found everywhere you get your music. The songs range from upbeat and happy to sombre. “It’s about my own pandemic experiences; I think people will definitely be able to connect.” Head to Manitoulin.com to watch the music video for ‘Free,’ featuring Emilee Ann.

“I can’t wait for our community to see this video because it’s so powerful,” Ms. Pitawanakwat said. “It’s such a powerful song. I’m really blown away by the words and what it meant.”