A Native American drum, no mat..
To Native Americans, dance is a form of awe-inspiring storytelling that honors their culture, departed ancestors, and more. Most dances are regionally or tribally specific. There are hundreds of them, with variations existing from tribe to tribe. Traditional dances commonly take place in an open field, around a blazing fire or central drum, or in a long structure, such as a longhouse. The steps mimic the movement of people or animals or symbolize simple gestures, whether that’s expressing prayer, victory, or thanks. Some dances are led by specific individuals, while others are a community effort. They can include the entire tribe or be specific to men, women, families, or participants of a certain age. Some dances incorporate nothing but drums and the voices of the singers, while others include instruments like rattles and bells.
Dancing continues to play an important role in Native American culture. Traditional dances can be an ordinary aspect of everyday living, or they can have special significance at cultural or spiritual ceremonies, like powwows. To learn more about traditional Native American dances and their importance, read on.
There’s more than one type of traditional Native American dance, but some are more well-known than others. Listed below are some of the various styles of Native American dance, where they originate, and what they symbolize.
The Grass Dance is one of the oldest-known tribal dances. Dancers perform this to pay respects to departed ancestors and to ask Mother Earth for strength. Originally performed by men, the dance has evolved to include participants of both genders. The movements of the dance mimic the swaying of grass in a light breeze. The dancers wear headdresses, fringes, and ribbons that sway in tune with their steps.
The Grass Dance originates from the Plains Indians, specifically the Omaha-Ponca and Dakota Sioux. According to legend, its original creator was a disabled child who wanted to dance but couldn’t on account of his injured legs. Saddened by his inability to dance, the boy consulted a Medicine Man, who instructed him to seek inspiration in a big, open field. The swaying grasses of the field inspired the boy to create the Grass Dance, which he shared with the rest of the tribe. Later, the boy miraculously recovered the use of his legs.
The Hoop Dance is an exciting, dynamic storytelling dance. It incorporates the use of hoops constructed from either reeds or wood. Since circles have no beginning and no end, the Natives use them to symbolize the never-ending circle of life. During the Hoop Dance, a sole performer swings hoops around in the air to create symbolic shapes, usually of butterflies, turtles, eagles, flowers, and snakes.
The Hoop Dance has multiple origin stories, but the most famous comes from the Anishinaabe tribe. The story tells of an unearthly boy who lived amongst the tribe. He showed no interest in running and hunting and preferred to watch animals instead. Disappointed, his father disowned him. But despite his father’s disapproval, the boy continued to observe the animals and, gradually, learned to move like them. He created the Hoop Dance to teach others about the animals and their way of life. Today, the Hoop Dance is a popular, highly competitive form of Native American dance.
The Ghost Dance symbolizes the regeneration of Earth and the joy of humankind. The participants dance to awaken and communicate with their ancestors. The hope is that the dance will give people closure upon the death of their loved ones.
The Ghost Dance originated during the 1880s when conditions on Native American reservations were dismal. Its creator was a Paiute tribesman named Wovoka, who claimed to have vivid dreams of salvation for the Native American people. In his dreams, the Native Americans flew into the sky while a brand-new Earth formed. Once the new planet was complete, they returned alongside the ghosts of their ancestors. The most famous and tragic performance of the Ghost Dance took place at the Battle of Wounded Knee, where American soldiers gunned down countless people from the Lakota tribe.
The Gourd Dance originated with the Kiowa tribe but quickly spread to other tribes and societies, including the Comanche and Cheyenne. Traditionally, men perform the dance, but it allows for the inclusion of women, who dance outside the circular arena. A drum sits on the side of or in the center of a circle. Performers gather around it and dance in place, lifting their heels to the beat of the drum and shaking their rattles. The rattles the dancers use aren’t made from gourds but from tin or silver cylinders filled with beads. Meanwhile, their attire is simple and ornamented with long, simple sashes that sweep across the ground. At modern powwows, the Gourd Dance usually takes place before the Grand Entry.
The Stomp Dance is a staple of the Chickasaw tribe. However, other Eastern Woodland tribes also perform it, including the Muscogee Creek, Yuchi, Cherokee Choctaw, Ottawa, Peoria, Shawnee, Natchez, and Seneca-Cayuga. The dance begins after dark and continues until dawn of the following day. It begins with a ground leader. Carrying a shell shaker, the leader walks toward a ceremonial fire with the rest of the performers following their lead. Placement of the performers depends on age and skill, with the younger dancers positioned near the back. Men and women alternate in line and walk clockwise around the fire. At some point, the lead singer speaks to the Creator and requests something: either an item or an act. According to legend, the Creator will grant whatever the singer requests within four days.
The Sun Dance was an important religious ceremony to the Plains Indians throughout the 19th century. Today, multiple tribes still practice it. The ceremony both begins and ends at sunset. It takes place during the summer solstice and can last anywhere from four to eight days. The dance symbolizes the infinite continuity of life and the dependence of life on the continuity of nature. Its purpose is to give thanks to the eagle for bringing harmony between body and spirit and to the buffalo for its role in Native American food, clothing, and shelter. It’s practiced differently depending on the region but shares some common features, like the use of a traditional drum, offerings, fasting, and, in some cases, the ceremonial piercing of skin.
Learning about some of the traditional Native American dances and their importance is crucial to Native Americans’ day-to-day lives and helps them connect with their culture and spirituality.
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