The Native American Dance

Native American Dance … Why Dance


Although I love to write on any subject related to Native American Culture and Arts, this introductory page to Native American dance is primarily from Julia Seton and her experiences in the 1920’s. She says it so much better than I could so, please visit the following links that compliment “Why Dance”.

The Native American Powwow

The Ghost Dance

The Native American Rain Dance

The following is from Why Dance by Julia Seton…

I have "seen the Red Man dancing To sustain the World Throb penned Alive between his ribs, Not like a ballerina's, in her toes, But next to where his life is, Heart, breath, and bowels of him; moved With the desire to make the world work well with God." MARY AUSTIN, The American Rhythm.

“The importance of the dance in the life of the Indian is shown in the fact that his most elaborate ceremonies are commonly known as dances.

The Indians teach a child to dance as soon as it can be held erect, training it to lift its little feet with the motion of a dancer, and instilling a sense of rhythm from the very beginning. In the CORN DANCE which we witnessed at Santo Domingo, one of the chorus carried a baby, perhaps three months old, upright against him all day, as he kept vigorous time to the rhythm of the music.

In the early stages of thought, the dance was inseparable from the song or chant. Now, the songs are usually sung by the men who play the accompanying instruments. If the dancers move in a circle, the instruments are placed in the center of the circle; otherwise they are in a row at one side.

The dances are many; but each has its name, its steps and movements, and its special songs; each has its history, and usually its symbolism, though much of this latter has been lost in civilization and self-consciousness.

There are dances for men and women together; and other dances in which men and women dance by themselves; still others in which individuals dance alone.

There are comic dances, and dances in costumes that disguise the persons taking part. Many employ masks symbolic in both form and color. In some tribes feathers are the principal decoration; in some, the men dance nearly nude.

But, however diverse the dancing regalia may be, or how marked its absence, no matter what the purpose of the dance, or the steps used, the Indian dance always presents two characteristics-dramatic action and rhythmic precision.

Dances of great activity are done exclusively by the men. Usually the dance is performed in a small space, or even on one spot. The changes of attitude, however, are sometimes rapid and violent. When the Indian dances, he dances with freedom, and every movement is vivid and natural. This is, perhaps, the most significant difference between the dances of the Red and White man. Our dance action has become conventional to the last degree--in all except the modern ballroom dancing, where a little more convention might be desired.

An Indian has said: "The White man dances with his legs; the Indian with his individual muscles." His dance, is, certainly, rather a body vibration than a limb motion.

The Makah Indians of Washington have a great number of what we would call interpretive dances; and it was not unusual in this tribe for a woman to dance alone. But, in most tribes, the women were not solo dancers, and did not employ the violent steps and forceful attitudes of the men's dances.

Hartley B. Alexander says: "The steps [of the women] are mincing, feet hardly lifted from the ground, the elbows close to the body and the hands barely shaken, the face impassive; yet noted closely, it will be seen that the whole flesh is quivering with the rhythm of the drum. Such dancing can be imitated only in a sketchlike fashion; the art itself is not the white man's

Alice Corbin Henderson says: the dances "are the heart and core of Pueblo life; they represent the incarnation of the Pueblo soul. When the Pueblo Indian fights for his dances, he is fighting for his soul . . . . If we help the Pueblo artist to find his soul, we may find our own."

And again: "The spirit of these dances is so pure, so genuine; they spring so inevitably from a primal source, that a comparison with our more artificial art is almost impossible" (Dance Rituals of the Pueblo Indians).

When a certain Wild West showman was putting on Indian dancers, doing weird barbaric hopping, yelling, and brandishing of spears, he was asked by one who knew how false such a demonstration was: "Why do you do that? You know that that is not the real Indian dancing." He replied: "Sure, I know. But that's what the public thinks is Indian dancing, so I must give it to them."

It is from such sensational sources that most of us obtained our first ideas of the art. How absurdly false such presentations are, and what a real loss they inflict, I slowly realized. It was not until the summer of 1927 that I had the full opportunity of seeing for myself what a new world of joyful art was open to those who study Indian dancing. Before that memorable trip was over, we had seen among the Indians not only the steps of nearly all other nations, but many that were peculiar to the Redman; as well as these steps combined into numberless characteristic and beautiful dances. We saw, in all, sixty-eight dances and had twenty more described to us by authorities. There are literally hundreds of different dances among the Redmen. It is safe to say of these that they embody all the advantages of our social and exhibition dances, and eliminate the grosser faults.”

I heartily urge one and all to go to a powwow or visit a Native American arts and crafts festival. The dance, the drums, and the singers will move you!

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