North Slope choir students perform at Disneyland

The Ipalook Elementary School choir stands in front of the Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland in October. (Photo provided by Jacob Calderwood, courtesy of Disneyland)

Choir students from Utqiagvik’s Ipalook Elementary School traveled nearly 3,000 miles this month from the North Slope to Anaheim, California to perform live on stage at Disneyland.

It was a unique opportunity for the kids to learn about music at a place where music and magic are synonymous. The soundtracks of classic Disney movies like “The Little Mermaid” and “Peter Pan” are what visitors hear when they first set foot in the park. Music sets the stage there.

“I think music has incredible powers. It can do things that no other domain or genre is capable of,” said Jacob Calderwood, director of the choir. “I feel music kind of just brings everything together in a sense that it makes us human. It’s the very thing that makes us human and compassionate and care about each other. It makes life worth living.”

Calderwood is the person who worked the magic to make this trip happen. First, he applied for the choir to take part in Disney’s Performing Arts program. After they were accepted, an army of volunteers spend months fundraising. A team of sewers made dozens of matching atikluks, or traditional shirts, for the kids to wear on stage.

But the challenges didn’t stop there. Throughout the trip, Calderwood had to keep tabs on 58 choir students and coordinate with 30 parents and chaperones, like Eleanor Saganna.

“To me, everybody (was) staring at us like, ‘Wow, where are you all from?’ (And I said,) ‘We’re from Alaska’ and they’re like, ‘Oh gosh, they’re from Alaska. That’s awesome,’” Saganna said.

For performance day, she even picked out a special pair of ivory earrings to wear. They’re carved to look like a person in a fur parka with their hand raised.

“It’s like waving, hi, to everybody in Disneyland and welcoming them to be with us, to talk with us and meet each other,” she said.

As the enormous group of students and chaperones walked down the main street of Disney’s California Adventure, people in the crowd paid attention.

“You know what’s really awesome is we walk around and see such a great diversity of people and now we get to share our diversity, as well,” said Monica Grund, assistant principal of Ipalook Elementary School.

The group headed for the entrance to the Disney backlot, where they were escorted backstage by official Disney stagehands to get ready for their performance. 

Outside, the crowd waited in anticipation.

“It’s been how many months preparation and everything. All the kids are very excited. They’ve (been) counting days since Day 1,” said parent and chaperone Noel Ortilla. “This is their moment.”

He said it’s a good feeling, as a father, to see his kids have this kind of once in a lifetime chance.

“When I was a kid, we never had this. I came from the country of the Phillippines,” he said. “We came from always dreaming of Disneyland and eveyrhting and here we are, my own kids are going to perform at Disneyland. It really is a good opportunity.”

The wait was finally over when the official Disney announcer’s voice came on the speakers overhead.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Disney Performing Arts is proud to present this live performance just for you, coming to you from Utqiagvik, Alaska,” she said.

For 30 minutes, the choir sang a selection of songs from around the world, all of which had words about hope and unity. Calderwood said he and the kids wanted to send that message to everyone in the park that day.

“One of our songs … says ‘We are one world, one people’ and it’s really true,” Calderwood said. “No matter where you’re from, if you’re Inupiaq, Caucasian, Filipino, whatever, we’re all unified in being greater humans.”

That’s what this trip was all about. Students from the Arctic got to leave home and perform on the big stage. And visitors at Disneyland got to experience North Slope culture in all its beauty. And that, Calderwood said, was a kind of magic.