Contemporary dance is eclectic and all-encompassing. You see African jazz to Nave American Hopi rhythms. Choreographers love mixing it up for an exciting display of prowess, with all kinds of cultural undertones. Dancing is an art, indeed, apart from its role in promoting fitness and general good health.
In past centuries, tribal dances were not for mere amusement as they are today in some parts. They were vital parts of certain rites and rituals. As such, they are to be called ceremonial dances. They are recreated at present for historical purposes. Covering various aspects of life, dancing celebrated hunting, harvesting, the need to give thanks, and more.
Most often ritual dances were held in the open air, perhaps around a central fire. They might be accompanied by prayers of victory or thanks. Drums, rattles, bells, and voices gave the steps an impetus and defined the mythological associations. Dancers would perform alone or in groups, and would spend hours rehearsing these dances – there was certainly no need for a home gym system in that time. Healing dances might be private while ceremonial dances would be for public view.
Dancing was a kind of storytelling, and it continues to be to this day. Movement becomes a kind of mime that recreates a time and a place. Stories can be religious or pertain to folklore. They can encompass personified animals. This is a great way to hand down information from generation to generation.
Among the more well-known dances are the Grass Dance of the Pawnee, Arapaho, Sioux, and Omaha, among many other tribes, and the Gourd dance of the Cree. In the former, large feather bustles called crow belts were worn along with a hair headdress. In the later, particular songs were intoned. There is a type of ritual called “fancy dance” created by the Ponca in the 1920’s to preserve their religion and culture at a time when it was threatened by the government. There was a time when ritual dances went “underground” to avoid persecution.
The fancy dance is actually a type of war dance and was popularly performed for visitors to reservations or in Wild West shows. Other tribes like the Kiowa and Comanche followed suit and a public art form was born. There already was the pow wow circuit, but it grew in proportion, giving Indians much-needed revenue during the Great Depression.
Men and women both performed various dances, sometimes in circles. If there were no costumes involved, a sash at least would be worn. Why the government banned these dances is unknown in the 1930’s; but they have survived to this day due to the industriousness of tribal historians. We hope there will be longevity.
If you want to go farther back, you can read about the Hoop dance which used up to 40 hoops to tell a story. Centuries ago, this ceremony was conducted for the purposes of healing, and to achieve balance and harmony in the universe. As a point of fact, the hoop represented the never-ending circle of life. While dancing, the participants used them to create symbols such as butterflies, snakes, turtles, flowers, or eagles. It is wildly popular with tourists who understand its depiction of the seasons, the elements like wind and water, and bodily forms.
Also legendary is the snake dance of the Hopi, which is still held once a year in August. It is derived from an old water ceremony since snakes are the guardians of springs. It has evolved into a rain dance that beseeches ancestors to intervene. One is likely to witness not only snakes, but feathers and rattles used amid constant chanting.
The rain dance is a sister event performed by agricultural peoples, usually in the southwest such as the Hopi and Apache. The spirits are implored to send rain for crops. In the spring, dancers celebrate the planting season at a time when rain is sorely needed. Tribes seem to have their own unique versions and costumes made of animal skins, embroidered aprons, and jewelry of leather and silver. Dance steps entailed zigzag patterns unlike the traditional circular movements.
Elders of every tribe can recount these dances and often show the variety of movements involved. Such a veteran will talk about waiting until dark to begin a ritual that lasted until dawn. Sometimes there was fasting and sometimes a medicine made of plant roots was taken. If you are talking to someone from the upper plains and Rockies, you will hear about the Sun Dance that unites body and spirit. There could be pipe passing, fasting, or ceremonial piercing of the skin. These dances were cultural expressions that entailed personal sacrifice and prayer to benefit the family and the community.
Thus dance is a multi-purpose enterprise with deep roots in the past. They are supernatural, spiritual, but also very real. Lucky are those who witness tribal movements that reveal the inner side of Native American life.