Native American Dance in Performance: A Choreographer’s Approach

Having been a student of dance technique for most of my life, I was startled when I realized that my perspective on this art form is very narrow. I know dance to be an innately human means of emotional expression, storytelling and communal bonding. Yet, in my experience with dance, consisting almost exclusively of ballet-based technique classes, I see nothing of this universality. I imagine I am not alone in my ignorance; the “dance world” in the U.S. is dominated by the Western European art of ballet and its offspring, modern dance. Lesser-known dance styles are sometimes incorporated into contemporary dance works, and cultural dance genres such as African dance have gained attention. However, in a country marked by diversity, I believe it is important that the public are exposed to a more representative concept of dance, replacing stereotypes of ballerinas with holistic understanding of what dance means to a people.  In particular, I want to explore dance as practiced by Native American tribes in the Eastern U.S., for though their dance tradition was developed in this region long before Western colonization, it appears more foreign to us today than the ballet which was imported from France, Russia and Italy.

Diversification of the performing arts is accompanied by the issue of cultural appropriation. For this reason, thorough research is essential for any choreographer wishing to present a dance tradition in which she is not deeply familiar. For this dance tradition to be properly presented in a mainstream performing arts setting, both the finished product and the process by which it is created should be informed by the culture in question. Thus, I am taking somewhat of a novel approach to my research. While the cultural significance of dance to Native American tribes in undeniable, I am focusing on the process underlying the dance itself. Assuming the role of a choreographer interested in presenting Native American dance to the general public, I will be asking questions about the teaching, learning, and performing of various dances. I am interested in the extent to which dances exist concretely as sequences of steps, and whether dancing is an individual experience or an ensemble effort. Furthermore, as I consider music and storytelling to be part of an inseparable triad with dance, I wish to learn about the interactions and relative importances of these three components in each tribe I study. My findings, if applied, would allow a choreographer to approach her work as a true collaboration between a Native American style of dance and the mainstream performing arts setting.

I believe that, in endeavours carrying a risk of cultural appropriation, consultation with members of the culture at hand is of utmost importance. Therefore, my research will rely heavily upon interviews. Members of Native American tribes, as well as members of the broader dance community who have interacted therewith, will be the best sources of information for the innermost workings of dance in Native American cultures. I intend to contact persons involved in various Native American dance events, and if consent is obtained, to conduct interviews during my travel to these events. First of all, I will read relevant literature to guide my inquiries, for while most of what I wish to learn will come from interviews, a basic understanding of dance within Native American cultures is necessary.

I will present my findings in a report which could theoretically serve as a guide for choreographers wishing to do Native American dance-based pieces. I also anticipate at least mentally formulating my own ideas for a dance work which would present my discoveries to citizens who, like myself, love dance but know little about its many forms.




  1. jmtauber says:

    Wow, this sounds like quite an undertaking! I recently had the opportunity to explore several Alaskan Native American tribal traditions (there’s a wonderful museum/cultural center in Anchorage) and so really appreciate the effort you are putting into this. It is indeed difficult to figure out how to approach Native-non-Native relations, even from a Native American’s perspective. From what the museum had on display, I think that Native Americans are also grappling with this concept. It is difficult for them to both uphold and keep alive their culture while still having to deal with “American” culture on a daily basis. Part of the problem is I think that it is impossible to say which culture is more appropriate/effective in approaching life (especially from a food standpoint). Then there’s the great variety in Native American cultures to consider, which brings me to my questions: are you focusing on one Native American culture/village? If so, which one did you choose and how? If not, how will you deal with their many differences (and again, which ones did you choose and how?) How will you contact members of this/these culture(s)? I know that when I did my interviews for my project (on Slow Food) the most difficult part was finding people who would be willing to participate. Thanks and good luck!

  2. smmullis says:

    Hi, thank you for taking the time to read my abstract, and for leaving such an insightful comment. You are right – it is quite an undertaking (as I have come to find out). Your questions are highly pertinent, and to be honest I’ve been asking myself similar ones from the beginning. In my proposal I did not specify one tribe or Nation in the U.S., but expected to focus upon Southeastern cultures, particularly North Carolina and Virginia. This was largely for convenience (much more feasible for me to visit tribal grounds in NC than in the Plains or Southwest regions), but also because it felt right to me that I should begin by learning about the indigenous cultures closest to my lifelong place of residence, North Carolina. While I suspected that, as you point out, the many differences between tribes would pose a problem, I also knew that I had to do some general reading so that I would know what I was getting into. During this reading, it became apparent that, at least today, regional similarities exist which might allow a researcher to form ideas based on information from several tribes. Dances are material for cultural exchange, and were bought, sold, shared, and used for inter-tribal ceremonies. For instance, the Green Corn dance/festival is part of the annual cycle of ceremonies for most tribes in the Southeast, where corn is extremely important agriculturally and symbolically. Since I’m not focusing on the “choreographic” details of these dances as they exist in NC/VA tribes, but upon the shared aspects of traditional/ritual dance, I’m hoping my multidirectional approach will not seriously undermine my ability to answer my questions.
    As for interviews, I have had a very hard time. I’ve realized that I’m not at all in a comfortable position to approach people, being an inexperienced researcher and total outsider to Native American culture. Email has so far been 100% ineffective in finding participants, which is not entirely surprising. I’m relying more than I anticipated upon contacts from my faculty mentor and my home community. In the meantime, I am acting as an observer and trying to glean insight from a distance. There do appear to be, however, culturally condoned settings for asking questions, such as museums and staged performances of traditional dance. As I continually re-evaluate my plans (my eighty hours are sparsely dispersed over the entire summer), it is with a more realistic view of the challenge of studying culture and tradition: they cannot be thoroughly understood without at least some level of immersion, and this is difficult (if not impossible) for a non-member to achieve.
    Alaska has such a wealth of Native communities that I really never considered including that region in my project. But it is intensely fascinating, especially because, in Alaska, the intersection of environmental issues (oil, salmon fishing, I suppose are a few) and indigenous life is especially apparent. I’m considering pursuing a conservation career, so really hope I’ll get to spend time exploring Alaska and the Arctic in the future. Thanks again for the comment, and if you’ve any advice for me I am always happy to hear it! Best wishes

  3. jmtauber says:

    Hi! Thank you very much for your insightful explanation! As far as finding interviews go–all I can recommend in your case is asking (once you have an interview) who else you could contact/who would be interested. And yes finding someone is immensely difficult: of 12 potential groups, I was able to get 3 interviews…perhaps stopping by a national park in the area that discusses the native population could be useful–maybe they have a talk on it or someone you could contact?
    I look forward to following your progress and wish you the best of luck!