Among the many forms of art that have been inspired by Native American people, dance is, hands-down, one of the most spectacular and aw-inspiring of all. To the untrained eye, Native American dances may seem like simple steps, hops, and jumps, that keep time with the beat of the drum. Native dances are so much more than that! These dances are expressions, they tell stories, and they are used as a medium for prayer; with each dance holding its own significant meaning.
Historically, dancing was a way to promote community interaction and meditation. Round dances were a way of introducing guests, tribes, and clans. Other types of dances were done to celebrate events such as harvest or seasonal changes, marriages, and representatives from other tribes or nations. Celebrations would last for up to four days, with dance, feasts, story telling, and teaching of social etiquette.
We dance for many reasons. Some dancers feel called or compelled to dance. Others are encouraged to dance by others. We dance for those who cannot dance; elders who do not have the strength or stamina to dance, those who are sick and weak, others who may be having a bad day – we dance and pray for them. It does not matter, why you dance, if you are good and people enjoy watching you, dance! Dancing is a good thing, because it shows honor and respect to our ancestors, our elders, our community, and most of all to our Creator.
Oh life is like a sacred circle, when we walk the good Red Road. We dance to pray, we pray to heal, we heal to live, we live to dance. ~ Sacred Circle written by Reverend Catherine Nelson, Keepers of the Word
Regalia is an expression of each individual dancer, and takes time to build. Adornments are often hand made, by the dancer, or passed down from family members or another dancer. Regalia is built upon over the years, as a dancers life evolves and new pieces are added. Dancers must show care and respect to their regalia. For anyone visiting a pow wow, please remember – do not touch a dancers regalia without first asking, as these “outfits” are often worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars and have very deep spiritual and familial meaning and attachment.
Men’s Grass Dance
One of the oldest dances known today, is the Native American grass dance. The dance is intended to mimic the swaying movements of the grass as it blows in the wind. The headdresses, typically a Porcupine hair roach, fringes, and ribbons on the dancers regalia intensify this mimicking of the swaying grass. The grass dance is preformed prior to the start of any ceremony, in an effort to flatten the grass and prepare the ground. Also, as part of the dance, honor is shown to hunters and warriors, to pray for and symbolize victory in a hunt or over an enemy.
Men’s Traditional Dance
Men’s traditional dancers preserve the “old way” of dancing. Through a combination of graceful and dramatic movements, the dancer tells the stories of hunting and war expeditions. Regalia can be simple or elaborate, and is made of beautifully detailed bead work, feathers, and other adornments that represent the dancers clan or nation.
Men’s Fancy Dance
A very dazzling and elaborate dance, men’s fancy dancers wear brightly colored, multi-bustled regalia. The fancy footwork, high jumps, and twirling require a dancer to be athletic and train for stamina. The regalia is said to represent the rainbow spirits, with its bright colors, flying feathers, and ribbons. Dancers also carry coup sticks, that are adorned with feathers and ribbons. A coup stick is a small stick that was often carried into battle by warriors. It is considered a sign of great bravery if a warrior was able to touch an enemy with this coup stick.
Women’s Traditional Dance
Women are considered the backbone of tribal nations. Women’s traditional is a very graceful dance that requires concentration and stamina. With movements that are very focused, it can seem as though dancers are floating along the ground as they dip and sway to the rhythm of the drum. The dancers stay connected to our Mother Earth at all times, by always keeping one foot attached to her, as they move in time with the drum. During “honor beats”, women will raise their fans in honor of the drum and their male relatives.
Women’s Jingle Dress Dance
This dance originates from the Ojibwe people. It is based on a young Ojibwe woman’s dream, and it is a healing dance. Jingle dress dancers are often called upon to dance for the sick or injured. In order to be a jingle dress dancer, one must dream of becoming one. This dress is adorned with 365 cones, one to represent each day of the year, and each cone contains a prayer. When drummers play “honor beats”, jingle dress dancers raise their fans to spread the prayers to the four directions, and the prayers are released from the cones of the dress.
Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance
The women’s fancy shawl dance is a “fairly new” dance. The regalia worn is bright, colorful, well adorned with bead work or applique. It is said that the fancy shawl dance is an adaptation of the ceremonial butterfly dance. Legend says that this dance and its regalia represents a young lady / butterfly, transitioning and emerging from her cocoon as a beautiful butterfly.