Native American Dance Styles
Men’s Traditional Straight Dances
Men’s Traditional/ Straight Dancers serve as storytellers in motion. As they dance, they act out feats of bravery and prowess. The dance records the history of tribal victories in battle and the hunt.
Northern Dancers act out war parties attacking enemies. Notice that they always face the enemy , avoiding turns in a complete circle. Braves may choose to paint their faces to add to their fierceness. On the other hand, Southern Dancers may tell of a hunter tracking an animal or a warrior on the trail of a war party. Moving counterclockwise, dancers may even portray the hunt by imitating animals with side to side head movements.
In Men’s Traditional style, dancers wear one bustle of natural turkey, pheasant, or eagle feathers (where legal), in addition to buckskin attire, breastplates, and a headdress of deer or horse hair called a “roach.” In contrast, Southern Straight dancers may wear a ribbon shirt, without a bustle, buckskin leggings, and the usual bone breastplate. Southern headdresses may even be made of porcupine with an otter tail extension down the dancer’s back. Look for tribal differences in regalia. The dancer’s footwork is basically a toe-heel step. Note the harmony of their movements with the drum beat. Try to interpret their motions as they act out stories of valor.
Men’s Traditional Sneak-Up Dance
The Sneak-Up is an ancient storytelling dance having several origins. In one version, a warrior acts out a battle where the enemy spots him, so he has to begin the attack anew. In the end, he does a victory dance.
Another version involves a hunter tracking a deer. His prey spots him, and he has to try again. The third version enacts a warrior in battle. He searches for a wounded friend, and upon finding him, he brings the friend to safety.
Only men perform the Sneak-Up Dance, as it was a way to teach young boys how to surprise prey or an enemy. Notice that when the drum beats fast, dancers lower themselves closer to the ground to hide, and then survey the area, checking for potential dangers.
Several tribes boast gifted dancers who are able to complete a dance form of storytelling with hoops. The dancer picks up one hoop at a time, and then increases, each hoop completing a new symbol of nature. The dance is a real feat of coordination, as the dancer must maintain his movements to the beat of the drum at all times!
Women’s Traditional & Straight Dances
Originating with Northern tribes, Women’s Traditional is now performed by Southern tribes, as well. This dance reflects the importance of women in Indian society in accordance with their roles as givers of life, keepers of home and family, decision – makers, and leaders in the Indian community. Northern Style dancers remain in one position or area, lightly bouncing to the drum beats.
However, Southern Style dancers move in clockwise circles, stepping to a slightly slower rhythm. The two styles are in sharp contrast, often necessitating that the Women’s Northern and Southern Traditional be danced as two separate events.
During “honor beats” of the drum, women dancers salute the drum with their fans, referred to as “catching the spirit of the drum.”
Women’s Traditional Straight dancers wear buckskin or cloth dresses with matching leggings and purses, beaded moccasins, and necklaces or bone breastplates. Feathers and beadwork are worn in the hair. A folded shawl over the left arm completes the regalia, as the long fringes sway in harmony with their steps to the beat of the drum.
Watch for the graceful swaying movements as the dancers dip, sway, and step with an air of regal dignity.
Men’s Fancy (War) Dance
The Fancy War Dance took on new significance after the last Indian Wars as a tradition recalling pride and culture for the next generation. After World War II, Men’s Traditional dance and dress styles became increasingly more fancy , accented by elaborate beadwork and colored feather bustles.
Men’s Fancy Dancers use intricate steps to the fast beats of the drum. They twirl, turn, step, and pose. Audiences can feel the excitement generated by their fast movements. Perhaps no other dance captures the individual style of each warrior dancer. The fast pace requires real stamina.
Today’s Fancy Dancers wear two feather bustles, a smaller one at the back of the neck, a larger at the back of the waist. Foot and leg movements are more elevated, and visual elements in costume, paint, materials, and colors are meant to attract attention. Elaborate regalia may include roach headdress with feathers on “rockers,” two colorful feather bustles, sheep skin below the knees with bells attached, ribbon shirts, and matching breechcloths. Footwear is ever changing; some prefer traditional beaded moccasins, while others add beadwork to dance sneakers or water shoes to allow flexibility of footwork. Note their high stepping motions, as well as chest and head movements.
Women’s Fancy Dance
Women’s Fancy Dancing , a relatively new dance style, is more vigorous than other women’s dance styles and similar to Men’s Fancy Dancing. Quickly adopted by all tribes, each dancer has her own unique style. Footwork is more intricate and fast paced. High steps are a part of the motion of the dancer as she twirls and bounces freely.
Fully outfitted Women’s Fancy Dancers wear cloth dresses of colorful material, beaded moccasins and leggings, a single plume in the hair, and a coordinating fancy shawl tucked under a cape at the shoulders.
Watch the dancer as she uses her shawl and shoulders to create fluid motions while keeping her footwork in harmony with the fast paced drum rhythm.
Men’s Grass Dance
Perhaps the oldest of all tribal dances, the Grass Dance allows the dancer to use his whole body to create free flowing movements to a slower drumbeat. Some say the dance is merely an expression of the swaying movements of tall prairie grass on a windy day. The most popular account recollects the purpose of the Grass Dance as stomping down the prairie grass to prepare grounds for ceremonies. Watch the Grass Dancer, clad in colorful yarn regalia, as he sways his lower body, legs, and feet in an ancient, abstract style.
Originating from the Great Lakes and Canadian tribes, women’s movements in the Jingle Dance are more confined. The tight-fitting, colorful cloth dress only allows a dancer to move her feet up, down, back, and forth to the drum beat. Hands are placed at the hips.
A dancer’s full emphasis is put into shaking the long, tubular cones sewn in rows covering the dress. According to legend, each dress took one year and one day to make. Every day one jingle was added along with a prayer. When the dress was finally finished, it had 366 cones and was appreciated by the owner for the time, effort, prayers, and personality of the dress. Made from soup or snuff can tops, the cones form a “fringe-like” decoration. Listen to the jingles accompany the drum beat.
Nanticoke Toe Dance
Elders of our tribe, such as E. Patience Harmon, remembered only one traditional Nanticoke women’s dance. The music is one of two songs she recollected from earlier Nanticoke Powwows held at Thanksgiving during the 1930’s – `40’s. We do this dance to honor the Elders. Look closely because the ladies never allow their heels to touch the ground as they gracefully dance and turn.
Native American Social Dances
Two Step and Rabbit Dances
Long ago, when Indian Nations met at council fires, social dances for couples followed. The Two Step is a general dance where visitors are welcome. Two lead dancers, as a couple, guide other pairs of male and female dancers who follow them around the dance area.
Traditionally, the Two Step and Rabbit Dances are “ladies choice” dances where women ask the men to dance. In more traditional times, if a man refused a woman’s dance request, he would pay restitution for the insult. In modern times, some emcees will set a restitution fee of five dollars. Either way, a man’s refusal was considered bad luck.According to the legend of the Rabbit Dance, a man’s refusal could cause him to turn into a rabbit!
The simple steps and bouncing motions make it a popular and fun social dance. Notice that the couples join hands, arm over arm, and step side-by-side around the dance circle to the lively beat of the dance.
The Crow Hop originated from Western Tribes. It, too, is a social dance meant to mimic the crow as he bounces around the field. One legend states that the crow brought fire to our land to keep our ancestors alive through the cold winter. Dancers imitate bird-like movements, hopping sideto-side, first on one foot and then on the other.
Also a Western tribal dance, the Shake Dance is another fun social dance. The drum imitates a “shaking” sound, while the dancers imitate the movements of the prairie chicken. Watch as the dancers “fluff their feathers” to “shake off the sand.”
Algonquian Woodland tribes profess that the Snake Dance tells the story of life. Dancers demonstrate the life cycle of a snake, from the time its life begins, through the next four stages of its life cycle, until its final stage of entering the Spirit World. Look at the dancers join hands and follow the lead dancers, moving rhythmically in snake-like motions.
Easily considered the most popular of the social dances, the Round Dance is a circle dance derived from earlier tribal Friendship Dances. Today, it is performed as an “open” Friendship Dance in which everyone, including visitors, may participate, whether in powwow dress or plain clothes. The Round Dance is usually performed near the end of each dance session. Be sure to join us in the dance area as we clasp hands in friendship to form several large circles representing all people of the Earth.
Native American Specialty Dances
The Ribbon Dance is one of the Specialty Dances performed at powwows. It is beautiful, in part because of the long, colorful ribbons which are intertwined throughout the dance. More importantly, the dance portrays the Native American wedding ceremony.
The dance begins with three couples. Each of the women carries a different colored ribbon. The first woman carries a red ribbon which represents the men of the tribe. The second woman holds a blue ribbon which symbolizes the women of the tribe. The third woman carries a yellow ribbon representing the Great Spirit. When the drum starts, the three couples separate into different directions, only to meet together at the center of the dance circle.
The men face the women and take one end of their partners’ ribbon. Then, the men braid the three ribbons together to symbolize the coming together of a man and a woman with the blessing of the Great Spirit. The ribbons are then unbraided and encircled about the waists of the women. The women must unwrap themselves, turning to each of the four directions of the world – north, east, south, and west. Finally, the men return the ribbons to the women, the couples separate, and they dance their way out of the circle.
Spear and Shield Dance
As two male warriors enter the dance circle, they face one another to measure each other’s courage. They separate to stalk and challenge. A shield is used to thwart attacks from the spear of the opponent. This is a battle to the death, and only one warrior will survive. The best warrior does a final dance to honor his opponent’s courage and to celebrate his victory.
Performed by the women of the tribe, the ladies display shawls representing the winged creatures of the Earth. Birds are an honored part of our past, not just for food, but for the feathers so important to our culture. Symbolically, birds were considered as the winged creatures closest to the Great Spirit in Heaven. Also, birds traveled the four corners of the Earth.
The dance begins as a line of women, wrapped in shawls, enters the dance circle. The women appear to “fly”using their shawls as “wings.” They stop and face the four sacred directions, to show respect for the “Four Faces of the Earth.” Weaving in and around each other at each stop, they finally come together in a circle. When the drum stops, the dancers “ruffle their feathers” with the fringe on the shawls, & exit to the drum beat.