Native dancers are drawn to dance for different reasons. Some children are encouraged to dance and be competitive pow wow dancers. Others attend pow wows as children and take an interest on their own. “I would bop up and down on my parent’s lap, and so they decided to make me an outfit, and I’ve been dancing ever since,” remembers one dancer.
Dancing in the old village days helped dictate community members’ social interaction and mediation. A round dance historically introduced and integrated the clans. Jinktamek (to celebrate) was a way to celebrate the harvest times, seasonal changes, marriages and special envoys for other nations. Historically, Jinktamek would last up to four days with singing, dancing and feasting integrated with social etiquette teaching and family lineage recounting.
Contemporary native dance events like pow wows have a different feel. Old ones tell that we should dance for the people, that if you have that gift, you’re good, and people enjoy watching you, you should dance for those who can’t: for elders those who don’t have the strength, for someone who is having a bad day, to help lift up their spirits and pray for them with dance.
Fulfilling the role of a dancer is not easy; it takes a lot of work and at times may even seem a heavy load. Creating regalia involves time, creativity and money, and feathers and regalia command a lot of care and respect. “You have to be disciplined with your outfit,” says one dancer. But if dancing will help an elder who might like to see your dance, or show technique to a child who can learn from you, doing that for the community is a good thing. Answering the call to dance for the people is more relevant than ever with the emergence of contest pow wow culture where a dancer can earn thousands of dollars in a weekend.
There are several categories of dancers and dances.
These dancers preserve the old way of dancing and tell of former war or hunting expeditions. Through a combination of graceful and dramatic gestures, the traditional dancer tells his story. These men wear exquisite beadwork and feathers that are characteristic to their particular nation, clan and/or family. The ensemble may frequently include pieces handed down for generations within the family, and may range from a look of dignified simplicity to the dramatically elaborate. The dance style is similar to the outfit itself—elaborate, expressive and powerful, but not so flashy and exuberant as other men’s styles.
Several tribes remember the grass dance as being part of the preparation in making a clearing for ceremony. The regalia is decorated with long, multi-colored yarn fringes which sway gracefully with the movement of the dancers’ bodies and are reminiscent of the long, blowing grasses of the prairie. That fringe originally started out as sweet grass hung from the regalia. The dance movements are distinctive for their sliding, shaking and spinning motions, rather than the high kicking steps of the fancy dancer.
Known for their stamina, high jumps, and quick footwork, fancy dancers dazzle. Their outfits are constructed of two multi-colored bustles (worn around the neck and back), matching bead work, and whips which are held to emphasize the elaborate gestures of these spirited dancers.
These dignified women are admired for the respectful manner in which they dance. Their feet never completely leave the ground, symbolizing their close connection to Mother Earth. Their regalia ranges from intricately sewn ribbon-work cloth dresses to beaded hide dresses. Most are covered with cowrie shells, elk teeth, silver, porcupine quills, and other decorative objects. These women are referred to as the backbone of the tribal nation and they dance in a sedate and stately manor, often simply standing in place rhythmically dipping and swaying to the beat of the drummers.
Women's Jingle Dress
Based upon a young Ojibwe woman's dream, the jingle dress dance is considered a healing dance. Jingle dress dancers are often called upon to dance for a sick or injured community member. To be a jingle dress dancer, you must have dreamt about being one. Traditionally, 365 metal cones are secured on the dress representing each day of the year and a prayer is put into each cone. During the honor beats of a song, the jingle dress dancer uses her fan to spread the prayers into the four directions as the prayers are released from the dancing cones.
Women's Fancy Shawl
Compared to butterflies, these light-footed dancers wear brightly fringed shawls over their shoulders, which complement the twirling, prancing pirouetting steps of this high spirited dance. The word fancy refers to the footwork, not the shawl. Legend says that the young ladies and their shawls represent the transition from a cocoon to a beautiful butterfly. Beadwork and accessories match the multi-colored shawls, creating a splendor of intricate footwork.