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.



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