Native American Dance
American ("First Nation," or "First People") dance is
a very special art. Many dances are performed for family events, such as weddings
and birthdays. Some dances are performed for fun, others to help the harvest,
and some for religious ceremonies. Here are some examples of the dances in
various regions of North America.
The Arctic peoples (Alaska and Canada) have many dance songs included in their ceremonies. The best known dance song for western Arctic peoples is drum dancing. It is usually performed at a festival honoring deceased relatives. People from neighboring towns are invited. Dancers wear costumes and masks, and the hosts give gifts to the guests. When it is time to dance, many drummers stand or sit in a half circle and sing and play their drums. Men and women dance in a half circle in front of them to the music, using their arms and upper bodies to show their feelings.
The Native Americans in western Washington and British Columbia (Canada) have another occasion for dancing, which is the potlatch. A potlatch is a community gathering to honor the host or to celebrate family events, such as births and marriages. A dance called Spirit Dancing is performed at potlatch festivals every year. Young men or women "catch" a guardian spirit, sometimes as if in a dream. The young people create their own song and dance to show the spirits of their guardians. New dancers choose costumes and paint their faces before they perform. Other young people who performed their dances in earlier years perform their dance again. Any close relative who remembers the dances from the year before also joins in the dance. Sometimes dancers will take on an animal spirit for a dance with the help of elaborate costumes that help them appear like a raven, a bear, or another animal of their choice. Gifts are given to visitors to thank them for coming and to ask them to remember the new dances for next year.
The Great Basin people (from a region including Nevada and parts of Utah, Oregon, and California), including the Utes, Shoshones, and Paiutes enjoy a dance called the Bear Dance. The Bear Dance is performed to ask for enough food for everyone. Another Great Basin dance is the Sun Dance,* which focuses on the importance of the sun.
*See link below for information on the Sun Dance
Facts About Native American Dance
Most dances are done by men alone, or by women alone.
Many dances are done in a circle. Many Native Americans believe that everything before, during, and after life is connected, with no end, just like a circle.
Many dances have names that honor animals, such as the Eagle Dance, Bear Dance, and Rabbit
Pueblo of the Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah and California)
have rituals and dances that have to do with farming and the need for water—two
things necessary for their survival. One type of Pueblo dance is the blue corn
dance. In this dance, the dancers act out the planting, growing, and harvesting
of corn. The Hopi perform a snake dance, which lasts for four days. Snakes are
caught and held while the people sing and dance. At the end of the festival,
the snakes are let go—to take the prayers of the people out into the world and
to their spirit friends.
The Native Americans of the Plains (from Wyoming to Minnesota and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan to Texas), including the Blackfoot, Lakota, and Crow, are well known for their powwow dances. Powwows were first danced in the 1800s, and are still done today. Powwow dances can be held for fun. They can also serve as family or tribal reunions. The dances are usually performed in a certain order. They start with a Grand Entry. Then there is a Flag Song, which is similar to singing the United States national anthem before a baseball game. There can be as many as eight more dances. Sometimes non-Native Americans are invited to join in a powwow dance. There are very special rules that must be followed if you are invited to join a powwow dance.
The Social Dance songs of the Iroquois in the Northeast are performed in between sacred rituals. They are often funny. There are nineteen different dances in the Social Dance set. Many of the dances are short and fast and are done by a group.
The Southeast Native American groups (North Carolina to Florida and west to Texas), such as the Creek and the Choctaw, also have special dances. The Creek Stomp Dance is performed for the Green Corn ceremony. The dance is very exciting. A solo singer starts to sing while the dancers and shell shaker players, who are all men, get in line. The song leader and the dancers sing back and forth to each other. Then the dancers and shell shaker players dance and sing faster and faster while each song gets longer and longer.
The Choctaw Social Dance songs were performed for an event called the Ballgame ceremonies. ("Ballgame" is the forerunner of lacrosse.) After the ballgame, the players would sing songs and everyone would dance into the night. There are as many as fourteen different dances and ninety songs! Some of the dances are done in a line, some in a circle, and some are danced by couples. Changing the song means changing the dance the people are performing. These dances and ceremonies were sacred but now they are performed in secular settings, such as educational demonstrations.
Fancy dancing is patterned after both the northern and the southern traditions and allows for the maximum individualization. It is also a demonstration of individual stamina. The elaborate regalia features feather bustles, one at the top of the back and the larger one at the bottom. Headdresses are topped with one or two feathers mounted in rockers which move back and forth with the motion of the head to the beat of the drum.
Among the most ancient of the surviving tribal dances is the Grass Dance. At least three tribes dance this version, with each of them having different ideas as to the origin of this dance.
To some it simply is an expression of the gentle swaying movement of grass on a windy day. The abundance of fringes and ribbons on the dress enhance the graceful movement of the dancers' bodies as they sway in the imaginary breeze.
Another tribe remembers dancing for the purpose of flattening the long prairie grass to prepare the ground for a larger tribal ceremony. To others, it originated to celebrate victory over an enemy.
Any one or all of these stories may be true.
Men's Northern Traditional Dance
The traditional dance may be the original dance of the Indians of the northen plains. Its origin is lost in antiquity, but its style allows for much individual expression on the part of the dancer. This is the reason for its growing popularity among the tribes.
There is a close similarity of story line to the Southern Straight Dance - that of a war party recounting its feat for the tribe. The interest is heightened by the use of a long "coup stick" and the motion of the feather bustle.
A much slower tempo allows the dancer to convey his emotions in singular fashion. He always faces the enemy, never turning a complete circle. Faces are painted in a way designed to intimidate the imaginary opponent with the fierceness of the brave. The dancer will mimic each element which makes up his regalia.
Men's Southern Straight Dance
The Southern Straight Dance also known as "traditional" to some southern tribes, is a prime example of how past generations recorded in their memories the history of the deeds of their tribe.
This is a "gentlemen's" dance, which tells a definite story of a hunting or war party on the trail of an animal or an enemy. The dancer is constantly searching for his prey. There is an exuberant "whoop" when the trail is sighted, and the warrior begins to follow the signs to his quarry.
The dress will vary from tribe to tribe, but usually includes a porcupine headdress, ribbon work and an otter tail extending down the back of the dancer. Singers may heighten interest by composing a new song, or they may sing one of a multitude of songs which may be centuries old.
Ladies' Southern Cloth Dance
Ladies Southern Cloth Dance is the perfect counterpart to the Men's Straight Dance. The slow, graceful walk and gentle sway in exact time to the music contribute to the stateliness of the dance. The gentle motion of the shawl folded over the arm is a harmony with the motion of the body to the drumbeat.
The dancer's dress may vary according to tribe and expression of the individual. Buckskin or cloth leggings and moccasins are beaded in symbolic ways. Beadwork and intricate ribbon designs decorate the regalia which is also often complimented by a long necklace made of tubular beads.
A gentle tinkle provided by tin cones and silver tubes on the belt becomes an additional accompaniment to the dance.
Ladies' Traditional Buckskin Dance
Formerly the exclusive dance of the princesses and ladies in leadership roles, the Ladies' Traditional Buckskin Dance is now open to all ladies. Traditionally, this was a dance of the northern tribes, but is now danced by southern tribes as well. The northern dancer usually stays in one area, lightly bouncing to the beat of the drum, displaying dignity and grace.
The slower beat and step of the southern version of the dance is in sharp contrast to the faster dance of the northern tribes. The difference in rhythm makes it necessary for the Northern Traditional and Southern Buckskin to be danced as two events. At a given time during the song, the dancer salutes the drum with her fan in a beautiful expression, "the catching of the spirit of the drum."
The Jingle Dress Dance
Originating among the tribes of Canada, the Jingle Dress Dance is relatively new to the southern plains. In the last few years, ladies of other tribes have begun to learn the dance and perform in competition. This is an example of a very old dance which held a very spiritual meaning, through that meaning is somewhat clouded by time.
It is a dance of pride and dignity, which allows a significant amount of individual expression. There is no set choreographic patterns, but is quite active and very exciting to watch.
The Jingle Dress is not only very colorful, but furnishes much of the musical accompaniment for the dance. Long, tubular cones form a fringe-like decoration which "jingles" as the dancer moves. Few dances can match the sheer brilliance of costume and sound of the Jingle Dress Dance.
Ladies' Fancy Shawl Dance
The Fancy Shawl is the most modern of the ladies' dances, and gives young ladies the opportunity to demonstrate their individual agility and grace. Dance steps are individually choreographed, but always in harmony with the beat of the drum. Many of the moves are very intricate. The spectator who is close enough to watch the movement of the feet will be rewarded with an added dimension, but the overall effect can be seen from any distance.
Though the fancy shawl involves more motion and agility than most women's dances, the grace of the woman is always expressed. The dress is brilliantly colored, and often adorned with beautifully designed beadwork. Beadwork is often a compliment to the shawl which is an integral part of the dance.
Dance Productions – Film – Video – Television - Theater
Since 1992 First Nations Dance Company has become one of the most successful all-Indian owned and operated Native American dance companies in the world. FNDC has performed in major markets and their television performances are viewed worldwide. First Nations Dance Company has performed in Istanbul, Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, Rotterdam, and over 60 other cities in Europe. Video productions have been viewed in Germany, Belgium, Holland, Turkey, Greece, New Zealand, and the United States. FNDC has worked closely with Dutch and other European television affiliates for 13 years.
Many tribes and nations are represented in the company, performers are members of the Navajo, Caddo, Delaware, Lakota, Kiowa, Sac-Fox, Zuni, Apache, Pawnee, Shoshone, are just some tribes represented.
The Sun Dance
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