In the Spirit: Native American women give the powwow some of its fanciest moves

June 18, 2007

    If you’ve seen the brilliant regalia and ferocious feet of today’s powwow dancers, you might wonder where these dances came from. Did the original women of America dress as colorfully and dance as vibrantly?

     Long before Christopher Columbus, indigenous dance served religious and social functions among the many tribes that inhabited North America. The Pueblo Indians of the Southwest prayed for rain, while the Inuits of Alaska honored the whale and caribou that sustained them. Tribes of the Great Plains danced to the spirits of the buffalo and the good hunt, and throughout the continent, tribes performed corn dances to pray for a good harvest. Some dances marked rites of passage and others aimed to heal the sick. Many of these original dances have been lost, but many have survived, fiercely guarded by native peoples. Although virtually unseen by the general public, these sacred dances have given shape to the western powwow dances of today.  

     When first relegated to reservations in the 1700s, American Indians developed secular forms to showcase complicated footwork amid spectacular pageantry. These dances were performed publicly in lieu of sacred ones. They were shared inter-tribally, and together with dances of the Plains Indians’ war societies evolved into the forerunners of the modern powwow. From the beginning of powwow until the early part of the 20th century, men danced more vigorously in the inner circle while women formed an outer circle, taking small steps with their eyes cast to the ground.

     Echoing the protocols of these first powwows, the women’s Jingle Dress dance style developed among the Ojibway Indians in the early 1900s. Although traditional in its overall tone, the outfit is bolder and the steps more active. Jingle dancers use both legs equally, splaying the feet so that the heel of one foot and the toe of the other share the weight. A shuffle step causes the dancer to bounce up and down like a piston. As she dances, hundreds of tiny tin cone “jingles” sewn on the dress rise and fall, chiming in clanky unison with the beating of the drum. The dancer’s hands usually begin at her side, clutching a dream catcher (also of Ojibway origin) and a feathered fan. Later, the arms may billow up from the waist with lifted elbows as the fan draws an arc above the dancer’s head.

      Legend has it that long ago a medicine man’s granddaughter fell ill with a mysterious affliction. Unable to cure her, he prayed for a vision. One night, a beautiful spirit in a jingle dress visited him and performed this dance. She instructed the man to sew a similar garment for his granddaughter, to take care with each jingle, and to teach her what he had learned. He did. When it was time for his granddaughter to dance, he carried her around the circle because she was too weak to move. But the chiming of the jingles heartened her soul and she became stronger. By the second time around, she began dancing on her own.

       The Jingle Dress, also known as the Prayer Dress, peaked in popularity in the 1920s when urban fashion introduced the glamorous flapper dresses and dances like the Charleston that heralded women’s changing role in society. When the Roaring Twenties with the Great Depression, the fervor for the Jingle Dress likewise died. Today the Jingle style is experiencing a renaissance among the powwow circuit as women of all ages recapture its mystery.

     In contrast to Jingle Dress, the Fancy Shawl dance topples the notion of quiet feet with an explosion of fancy (hence the name) footwork and robust regalia. Fancy Shawl, the newest of all the powwow styles, began in the 1950s as a response to the way men danced faster, more vigorous forms such as the Grass Dance and Fancy Dance. Fancy Shawl differs from men’s Fancy Dance in its lack of bustles and feathers, but it rivals the men’s styles in its furious footwork and tireless tempo. “It is a real physical challenge,” confesses Fancy Shawl dancer Donna Ahmadi (Gullah Cherokee/Chickasaw). “There is much more freedom to improvise and to use your whole body.”

     Ahmadi is a small, buoyant performer who has earned her chops as a professional dancer with Pilobolus Dance Theatre, Stephan Koplowitz, and her own Mantis Dance Theatre. She studied dance at the School of the Hartford Ballet, Connecticut College, and SUNY Purchase, but grew up attending powwows and learned native dance from observing others. In Fancy Shawl she is constantly on the balls of her feet, flying through the air and whipping her shawl about her like a psychedelic butterfly. The shawl is patterned, with a long fringe that’s worn over the shoulders; as the dancer jumps and spins, it flips and sways, creating swirling images in the air.

     “Women got tired of standing back,” says Native American dance educator and elder Louis Mofsie (Hopi/Winnebago), “so they developed this dance to say ‘Look,’ we can dance as well as the men, maybe even a little better.” Eager to share the arena with these newly assertive dancers, he continues, “As long as she has that shawl, a woman is considered properly dressed for any of the festivities.”  

     In any event, the Fancy Shawl dancers have found a way to push the envelope regarding expectations of Native American women. As Ahmadi admits, “Fancy Shawl is the only dance that really fits my personality. It’s so active and fun.” To watch the Fancy Shawl dance in action is like watching a colorful cyclone spin its way around an arena. Once seen, it is hard to imagine a time when women stepped demurely in the outer circle. With one foot forward, these bold dancers are the forbearers of a revolution in powwow dancing, balancing tradition and innovation in an ever-changing world.

Tom Pearson, a writer and choreographer of Native American descent, participates in powwows as a Grass Dancer.