Powwow Dances

Women’s Traditional Dance can be broken into two groups according to the type of regalia: buckskin and cloth.  The oldest form of women’s dance style, is Buckskin. This is a dance of elegance and grace.  The movement is smooth and flowing. The ladies wear fine, handcrafted buckskin dresses, decorated with intricate bead designs. Northern dresses are fully beaded on the shoulders, or cape.  Southern ones, the beadwork is mainly used to accent.  The women carry fringed shawls over one arm. Ladies Cloth is a Southern Traditional form of women’s dress.  This style is danced by the Kiowas, Osage, Ponca, and others.  The dance is slow and graceful, much like the Women’s Buckskin style.  In either case, much like the Men’s Traditional Dance, there are many tribal and regional differences in the outfitting of this women’s style.


Men’s Northern Traditional Dance is a popular Northern style of dress and dance.  The traditional style evolved from the well-known “old time Sioux” style of the early reservation period through the 1940’s.  Although a clear distinction exists, one can see an obvious connection to the old-time Sioux Outfit, with the dancer drawing from this earlier style various elements to which he either adheres to or uses as a basis for his own interpretation.  This form of dancing, which has evolved over the years, is the oldest form of Native American dancing.  The movement in this style is one that is sometimes characterized as similar to a prairie chicken.  The dancer is also said to be re-enacting the movement of a warrior searching for the enemy.


Men’s Southern Traditional Dance, often called the Straight Dance, is from Oklahoma.  The regalia is a formal, tailored, prestigious form of Southern dance clothes.  The overall effect is of reassuring solidity, with everything closely matched and coordinated.  This dance has evolved from the Hethuska dances. It is believed that the Ponca created this style.  The Hethuska are dances held by different societies.  There are a lot of clothes to wear in the outfit, and accordingly the dance is slow and proud. The art of the Straight Dance is in the little, sometimes unnoticed things, both in the movement and the regalia.  Smoothness, precision with the song, knowledge of dance etiquette, and a powerful sense of pride mark the outstanding Straight Dancer.


Oklahoma Feather Dance, or “fancy dance,” is one of the most popular style of dance and regalia seen at modern powwows.  The fancy dance regalia, as such, has no tribal identity.  The most obvious items in the fancy dance regalia are great amounts of loom-beaded sets of suspenders, belt cuffs, headband, and a set of armbands.  The designs are usually matching in all items and of a rainbow feather or geometric design.  Beaded medallions on the forehead and bustles are also quite common. Occasionally a breastplate will be used in place of the beaded suspenders or in conjunction with them.  The other trademark for fancy dancers is the use of large feather bustles.  Currently most bustles are color-coordinated with the beadwork by using large amounts of feather hackles dyed the appropriate colors.  The dance style is of two types: a basic simple step while dancing around the drum and a “contest” step with fast and intricate footwork combined with a spinning up and down movement of the body.


The Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance is the newest form of women’s dance, and is quite athletic!  Fancy Shawl is often called Northern Shawl, as it come from the Northern tribes along the US-Canadian border.  The dancing and the bright colors are similar to the Men’s Fancy Dance.  The ladies wear their shawls over their shoulders, and dance by jumping and spinning around, keeping time with the music.  They mimic butterflies in flight, and the dance style is quite graceful and light.  Emphasis is paid particularly to the shawls, with elaborate designs, appliqué, ribbon work, and painting. Long fringe hangs from the edges of the shawl.


The Jingle Dance regalia is also called a prayer dress.  There are differences in the origins of the dress among the tribes.  The dress was seen in a dream, as an object to bring healing to afflicted people.  It comes from the Northern tribe Ojibwa, or Chippewa, along the Canadian border.  Jingle dresses are decorated with rolled up snuff can lids that are hung with ribbon.  The ribbon is then sewed to the dress and the jingles placed close enough so they can hit together, causing a beautiful sound.  If one were to close their eyes as the Jingle dancer passes, it would sound as though it were raining!


The Grass Dance is a very popular style of dance today.  Originally done as a warrior society dance, it has evolved over the years.  It has further evolved into a highly competitive form of Northern dancing.  The Grass dancer always stands out by virtue of two things: his dancing style and his regalia.  The dancing has been described often by the words ‘gutsy’, ‘swinging’, ‘slick’, and ‘old-time.’  The regalia stands out by virtue of the almost complete absence of feathers.  Aside from the roach feather, there are no bustles of any kind.  The name “Grass Dance” comes from the custom of some tribes wearing braided grass in their belts.  The unique parts of the Northern regalia are the shirt, trousers, and aprons, to which yarn fringe, sequins, and beaded rosettes and other designs are attached.  The regalia makers are fond of using playing card designs-hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds.  Hearts and rosettes are the most common.  White fringe is preferred, however, gold, silver, and other light color fringe is also used.  Bells are worn around the ankle.  Mostly plain hard-soled or woodland soft-sole moccasins, and sneakers are worn.


Tiny Tots dance consists of dancers age 5 and under.  The dancers are honored as the future of Native culture.  As such, at many events they are not judged in a competition, as it is not wished to discourage the “future of the circle” from participating.  The emphasis is placed on ensuring these youngsters enjoy their time in the circle and learn from being in the company of the older dancers and singers. Parents decide what style of regalia to clothe the young ones and they are encouraged by the parents, family members, and everyone at the powwow, to dance their best and watch the other dancers, while also learning the proper etiquette and customs from their elders.


The Hoop Dance is a storytelling dance, which incorporates from 1-40 hoops to create both static and dynamic shapes. These formations represent the movements of various animals and other storytelling elements. In its earliest form, the dance is believed to have been part of a healing ceremony designed to restore balance and harmony in the world. With no beginning or end, the hoop represents the never-ending circle of life. The hoops, typically made of reeds or wood, are used to create symbolic shapes, including butterflies, turtles, eagles, flowers, and snakes. 


There are several tales of how the dance originated. Some say the Creator gave a series of wooden hoops and the "dance" to a dying man from the Northern Plains who wanted a gift to leave behind. Another story in the Southwest tells that the hoops were developed by cliff-dwellers for children to learn dexterity.


A more prominent legend has the Hoop Dance originating in the Anishinaabe culture, when an unearthly spirit was born to live amongst the people. The boy did not show any interest in typical boy activities such as running and hunting, preferring to be alone and watching animals. This caused his father to shun him and earned him the name Pukawiss: the disowned or unwanted. However, the boy continued to watch the movements of eagles, bears, snakes, and birds and before long was spinning like an eagle in flight, hopping through the grass like a rabbit, and created the Hoop Dance to teach the other Indians about the ways of the animals. Before long, Pukawiss was so popular that every village wanted to learn the dance.


 Today, the Hoop Dance remains popular. It is generally performed by a solo dancer who begins with a single hoop, evoking the circle of life. Additional hoops are added representing other life elements, including humans, animals, wind, water, and seasons. The dance incorporates very rapid moves in which the hoops are made to interlock and extended from the body forming appendages such as wings and tails. Practiced by a number of tribes today, it has evolved over the years, becoming faster and incorporating many non-traditional influences. It has also become a highly competitive event, with the first World Hoop Dance Competition held at the New Mexico State Fair in 1991. 


Gourd Dance is believed to have originated with the Kiowa tribe. Gourd Dances are often held to coincide with a powwow. The Gourd Dance has its own unique dance and history. Kiowa legend has it that when a young man was out alone he heard an unusual song coming from the other side of a hill. Investigating, he found the song was coming from a red wolf who was dancing on its hind legs. He listened to more songs through the night. The next morning the wolf told him to take the songs and dance back to the Kiowa people. The "howl" at the end of each Gourd Dance song is a tribute to the red wolf. The dance in the Kiowa language is called "Ti-ah pi-ah" which means "ready to go, ready to die." The ceremony eventually spread to other tribes and societies. The Comanche and Cheyenne also have legends about the Gourd Dance.  


The dance is performed by men but women can participate by dancing in place behind the men and outside the circular arena. The drum can be placed on the side or in the center of the circle and the dancers perform around the perimeter of the area, usually dancing in place. The dance is simple, with the participants lifting their heels with the beat of the drum and shaking their rattles. Dress is also not elaborate, with sashes being worn by the dancers, around the waist or draped around the neck, reaching the ground.


Beginning in 1890 the United States government began to actively enforce bans on these dances and by the 1930s it was out of practice. However, several tribes have resurrected the dance today. Some gourd societies do not distinguish race as a criteria for joining, even allowing non-Native Americans to be inducted into their gourd societies. However, the Kiowa allow only members which are half blood or more. During powwows today, gourd dancing generally occurs before the Grand Entry. The rattles used in powwows are not made of a gourd; but rather a tin or silver cylinder filled with beads on a beaded handle.