Dance Tidbits: Dances of the Native American Indian – Part 1

It seems I’ve grown up watching Indians on television and the silver screen all of my life, without really knowing what anything really means in their culture. After all, they are Native American Indians, part of our American heritage. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been fascinated by the Native American Indian. I find the customs to be so spiritual in nature. It seems especially true when it comes to their mysterious dances. There are so many different kinds and what do they all mean, i.e. Fancy Dance, Ghost Dance, Gourd Dance, Hoop Dance, Hop Snake Dance, Rain Dance, Sun Dance, Stomps Dance and War Dance, just to name a few. And just like there are many Native American dances, there are even more Native American Indian tribes. Hopefully, when we take this little dance journey, we will come away understanding the Native American Indian and his dances a little more.

As long as I can remember, Indians would dance around an open fire in movies. Specific movements of the participants would show the purpose of the dance. Many times, there is a designated leader that has been chosen, such as a war leader or a medicine man to lead the dance. Remember that drum sound you would always hear when the Indians would dance, that’s so they can hear their own voices as they would chant as they dance. Music, other than the drums, would be too distracting. Other tribes may use bells and rattles. It is not uncommon to see dance solos or songs being sung by a leader and a chorus. Participants can include an entire tribe, or be made up of men only, women only, or a specific family only. There can be public dances, private dances and semi-public dances for healing, prayer, initiation, storytelling and courting.

Dancing to the Native American Indian is as important today as it was centuries ago. A dance can be regional or tribal. Depending upon the dance, sometimes visitors are welcome, while other times, the ceremonies are private. They say there are hundreds of dances and variations across the continent. The Native American Indian has cultivated a dance association. This is where a number of semi-religious festivals or ceremonies involve large numbers of individuals participating going from one tribe to another, each tribe having its own distinct ceremony, songs and dance. Meetings of these associations were held at night in large circular wooden buildings erected for the purpose of dancing. It was not uncommon to see some of the dancers wearing large feather bustles called crow belts, or a peculiar headdress made of hair. Sometimes members of some of these associations would help the poor people on the reservations.

No matter what, dance plays a huge role in the lives of the Native American Indian. Dance is significant in both celebration as well as solemn matters. There are dancers for religious rituals as well as ceremonies. There are dances for hunting, harvest and giving thanks. Let’s take a look at some of these dances.

Fancy Dance – This is not a historical dance tradition of any tribe. It is loosely based on the traditional War Dance. The Fancy Dance was created by members of the Ponca Tribe in the 1920’s and 1930’s, in an attempt to preserve their culture and religion. It is interesting to note, Native American religious dances were outlawed by the United States and Canadian governments. Traditional dances went underground to avoid government detection. The Fancy Dance was considered appropriate to be performed for visitors or reservations and can often be seen at “Wild West” shows. The Fancy Dance is fast paced, colorful and highly energetic. It can include tricks and very athletic movement.

Ghost Dance – Means a Promise of Fulfillment. The Ghost Dance is a spiritual movement that came about in the late 1880s when conditions were bad on Indian reservations and Native Americans needed something to give them hope, specifically designed to overcome pain and suffering.

Gourd Dance – Believed to have originated with the Kiowa Tribe. Gourd dances are often held to coincide with a Pow-Wow (a North American Indian ceremony involving feasting, singing and dancing). The Kiowa legend has it that when a young man was out alone, he heard an unusual song coming from the other side of the hill. When he investigated, he found the song was coming from a red wolf, who was dancing on its hind legs! After listening to more songs through the night, the next morning the wolf told him to take the songs and dance back to the Kiowa people. So, at the end of each Gourd Dance song, is a tribute to the red wolf. Soon after, the Comanche and Cheyenne Indians had legends of their own about the Gourd Dance, as well as spreading to other tribes and societies. The Gourd Dance is performed by men. However, women can participate by dancing in place behind the men and outside the circular arena. The dance steps are simple, with the participants lifting their heels with the beat of the drum and shaking their rattles. Now you would think that the rattles were made out of a gourd, but that is not the case at all, the rattles are made of a tin or silver cylinder filled with beads on a beaded handle.

Grass Dance – One of the oldest and most widely used dances in Native American culture. It was the job of the Grass dancers to flatten the grass in the area before celebrations. However, the name “Grass” does not come from stomping down the terrain, but rather from the old habit of tying braids of sweet grass to the dancer’s belts, which produced a swaying effect. Legend has it that it was created by a handicapped Northern Plains boy who had a desire to dance. After consulting a medicine man, he was instructed to seek inspiration on the prairie. Following the advice, he went alone out on the plains where he had a vision of himself dancing in the style of the swaying grasses. When he returned to the camp, he shared his vision and was said to have eventually been able to use his legs, performing the first Grass Dance.

Another objective of the dance was to honor and respect ancestors and gain spiritual strength from mother earth. It is a popular dance today and both men and women participate. The Grass Dance is full of color and movement. Dancers resemble a multi-colored swaying mass of yarn or fringe which represents grass. As the dancers move in fluid and bending positions to the music, their positions resemble the movement of grass blowing in the breeze.

Throughout history, it seems the Native American Indian had to face many territorial, religious and political battles. These struggles include the right to be able to dance to their own cultural dances! In 1890, the U.S. government began to actively enforce bans on some of the dances I’ve mentioned here, and sadly, many of the traditional dances were no longer practiced. The good news is, today, several of the tribes have resurrected the dances.

Join me in Part 2 of this fascinating “dance” adventure of the Native American Indian. We will be looking at more unique, exciting dances and the fabulous, lavish, clothing and adornments worn in these dances.

Thought Of The Week:

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader – John Quincy Adams


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Shane Meuwissen is the Media Specialist for Fordney Foundation.  He is a former dance instructor who know works with his company Slow Motion Dance Videos capture the beauty of dancing. If you would like to learn more about Shane and his video work, visit his website