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Posts Tagged ‘powwow’

Dance at a Powwow

Photo: Linda Dulan.
In July, the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers hosted its 42nd annual powwow at New York’s Queens County Farm Museum. Seen here, an old-style men’s dance.

I’ve always wanted to get to the Narragansett tribe‘s summer Powwow in Rhode Island. And I will do it yet — never mind how busy summer gets.

In today’s post, Dance magazine whets my appetite even more with wonderful pictures from a “dance powwow” in New York State.

“Over the course of three days in July, the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers hosted its 42nd annual powwow at Queens County Farm Museum. Founded in 1963 by members of the Mohawk, Hopi, Winnebago and Kuna (San Blas) tribes, Thunderbird is the oldest resident Native American dance company in New York, and puts on the city’s largest powwow, drawing dancers from more than 40 tribal nations for a series of performances and dance contests, as well as crafts and food stands.

The next morning the mother showed the women how to make the dress, showed them a special dance and sang a very special song for them. Sure enough, her daughter got well.

Dance Magazine joined [a] sunset bonfire to capture some of the competitions, and asked Thunderbird director Louis Mofsie and company dancer Michael Taylor to share their insights on the place of dance within the powwow.”

They write, “The powwow is a social gathering where we get together to dance and sing, to meet old friends and make new ones. Originally a Western/Great Plains tradition, it does not have any religious or ceremonial significance — our religious and ceremonial dances and songs are restricted and closed to outsiders.

“Dancing is the major activity. Over the weekend, there are dance competitions and also what are called intertribal dances, where the dancers from all tribes are invited to participate. Our bonfire each evening during the gathering is there to help us travel back in time to the days when we had no spotlights. It reminds us of our past, our connection to our heritage and how it has survived through all our hardships to this day.

“As Native American people, we start dancing at a very young age. Dancing at powwows is how we learn the different styles of dances and what they represent. It helps us to connect to our roots and reinforces our awareness of who we are. It also reminds us that Native American dance is the original dance in America—and is still alive today. …

“Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance. This dance dates back to around 1945, right after the Second World War. Native American women and men had volunteered for the armed services and traveled all over the world. During their travels they observed how the women in many different countries were dancing. When they returned home, they decided to introduce a different style of dancing. Traditionally, the women did a very slow, graceful movement around the outer edge of the dance circle, and the men would be doing more vigorous movement on the inside. The Fancy Shawl Dance is much faster in rhythm, more vigorous and permits them to dance on the inside of the circle. The women wear shawls with very long fringe along the edges, and as they move, the fringe reminds you of the feathers that the men wear. Although the women do not wear the feathers and bells on their legs like the men do, their footwork and movements are very similar.

“Men’s Fancy Dance. They say this dance also originated around the end of the Second World War. When the men returned home from the war, they also wanted a more vigorous style of movement. Fancy dancing is much faster than traditional men’s dancing. Each of the dancers tries to create as many fancy steps as they can while keeping time with the singing and drumming. The men wear feathers with ribbons attached to each end, and they carry dance wands that are decorated with ribbons and feathers.

“Women’s Jingle Dress Dance. This dance tells the story of its origin. There was a mother who had a very ill daughter. One night she had a dream, and in it she had a vision: She was told to show the women how to make a special dress with little cones or jingles on it, show them how to do a special kind of dance and sing them a very special song. If she did all these things, it would help her daughter get well. The next morning the mother showed the women how to make the dress, showed them a special dance and sang a very special song for them. Sure enough, her daughter got well. The dance started out as a healing dance but has come down to us as one of the more popular competition dances at the powwow gatherings.”

I never thought about it before, but why should any community have an art form that never evolves. I love the idea that indigenous people who returned from WW II incorporated new influences into traditional dance. More at Dance, here.

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My parents sometimes took me to the New York City ballet when I was little, and once or twice we went backstage. I think I got the autograph of Maria Tallchief, but I was too young to be careful with it for a lifetime.

Recently, I was interested to see an article by Allison Meier on Tallchief and four other American Indian ballet dancers. I had not known there were five. The article is at the website Hypoallergic, and the lead came from ArtsJournal.com.

Meier writes, “Five dancers who started their careers in the 1940s redefined dance in the United States, becoming some of the first American prima ballerinas in the world’s top companies, from the Ballets Russes to the Paris Opera Ballet. And they were all American Indians from Oklahoma.

“Yvonne Chouteau, one of the ‘Five Moons,’ as they were anointed, died [January 24] at the age of 86. Along with Moscelyne Larkin (Shawnee, 1925–2012), Rosella Hightower (Choctaw, 1920–2008), Marjorie Tallchief (Osage, b. 1926), and, most famously, Maria Tallchief (Osage, 1925–2013), she rose in the ranks of dance when ballet was still not widely appreciated in this country. The women had distinct careers, but they all danced when they were young at powows and caught performances by the traveling Ballets Russes and other companies, propelling them to study professionally. …

“Nora Boustany wrote in Hightower’s Los Angeles Times obituary that the women’s ‘remarkable accomplishments showcased American dance and talent to the world when Russian stars still dominated that scene.’

“And as Larkin said in a short documentary produced by NewsOK: ‘It’s not just a fluke that we are all Native Americans and that we all became dancers.’

“In the Oklahoma State Capitol, a mural of the five dancers adorns the rotunda. Painted by Mike Larsen, it shows them posed in white tutus, the shadows of the Trail of Tears behind them. Each had a unique style and left her own legacy, but together they promoted their indigenous heritage through the art of dance.”

More here.

Photo: Roger Wood
Maria Tallchief in ‘Swan Lake’ in 1952. (The photo is housed at the New York Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

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