Native American Dance from a (misguided!) Choreographer’s Approach: Final Update/Summary of Project

During the past few weeks I have devoted probably close to forty hours to the development of my product. I am putting more time into it than is strictly necessary according to the stipulations of the Monroe project, and yet, I feel that I have done nothing which was not necessary under the circumstances. The product is just a written report, though of a somewhat unconventional nature. Realizing the importance of personal identity in research and in dancing, and certainly therefore in research about dancing, I have embraced rather than avoided the first-person voice in my essay. In fact, the real “findings” of this project are related to my identity, my perspective, and my experience as a first-time “researcher” of another culture. My paper recounts what I have learned about Native American dance past and present (and I will do so in this post, briefly, as required), but it contains little to no original insight aside from personal reflections, to which I dedicate quite a bit of space. Thus, it is less of a research paper than a sort of memoir or retrospective on a novice’s short-term dabbling in ethnography and dance studies. While this product (however classified) is certainly not an authoritative source of information on Native American dance, I did my best to avoid overgeneralizations and inaccurate statements, and I hope that this summary reflects the progress I feel I have made towards a better understanding of the topic.

Without further ado, here is an outlined and abbreviated version of my report, and if it is exceedingly short, it is because I am consumed in finalizing an exceedingly long paper at the moment.

 

A ) “Traditional” Native American dance (i.e. community dance, non-staged)

  • Content/Purpose: Traditionally, dance served both ceremonial and social purposes in Native American communities. More specifically, a dance ceremony might occur as a means of curing sickness, celebrating/praying for victory in war or a good harvest, or marking life cycle milestones, among other possibilities. Social dancing brings people together for friendly interaction. In reality, the ceremonial/social classification is not binary, and it is common for dances to have elements of both sacred and social functions. The significances of certain widespread dances vary between tribes and are subject to change over time.
  • “Choreography” (the movement itself): Men and women might dance, separately and/or together, in complex patterns through the dance space. Circles are common. On the level of the individual dancer, “pantomime”-type gestures may be used to depict actions such as hunting, or to mimic animals. Additionally, dance may provide space for the re-enactment of battle experiences by warriors, as in Victory/Scalp Dances. Overall, Native American dance in many cases can be described as “structured improvisation”; there is individual freedom within a prescribed pattern and movement vocabulary.

B ) Powwow dance

  • At contest powwows, dancers participate in their chosen style with members of their age group. The youngest participants are the “Tiny Tots” and the oldest are known as “Golden Age”.
  • The general categories of men’s powwow dance are Traditional/Straight Dance, Grass Dance, and Fancy Dance. Women’s styles include the Traditional, Jingle Dress, and Fancy Shawl Dances. Sometimes these categories are further divisible into different versions of a dance. For instance, the Traditional style for both men and women may include several sub-styles from different regions, each with characteristic steps and regalia.
  • Drumming groups provide the music for powwow dances, each of which has a specific song. Dancing to the drum beat is a very important criterion in every dance style; a dancer’s body as well as the mobile parts of his regalia should move in time with the drum. Dancers recognize cues within the song, and stop exactly when it ends.

C ) Appropriation by early Modern choreographers

  • Several “pioneers” of Modern dance techniques in the 1920s and 1930s created pieces based on Native American dance, imagery or themes. Often, they selectively took from Native American material to advance their own goals, such as presenting a distinct “American” identity, creating a “masculine” dance style, or adding an avant-garde feel to their work through “primitive” references. While these choreographers never intended to represent “authentic” Native American dance, they committed a form of cultural appropriation in borrowing dances, costume styles, and ideas without permission from or inclusion of Native American people.

D ) The Contemporary Native American Stage Dance movement

  • During the 1980s, the American Indian Dance Theatre and Daystar: Contemporary Dance-Drama of Indian America were founded, both explicitly Native American dance companies directed by Native artists. While the works of these two groups are very different (AIDT stages “authentic” / powwow dances and Daystar’s work focuses on storytelling), they both represent steps towards Native American self-representation within the framework of the Western theatrical setting.
  • Since the 1990s, a visible genre of Contemporary Native American stage dance has developed. It is a diverse movement and seems to be concentrated in Canada more than in the United States. Contemporary Aboriginal (this term is commonly used referring to Native peoples of Canada) choreographers create innovative pieces which combine elements of “traditional” and “contemporary” dance in meaningful ways. For choreographers and dancers participating in this movement, the act of dancing can address numerous important purposes, among which may be self-representation and creation of sovereign space, critique of stereotypes and romanticized beliefs, and dealing with the trauma of colonialism. Native worldviews are embedded in the dances of Contemporary Native American artists, who see dancing not as performance only, but as embodiment capable of provoking a real transformation onstage.

 

In my conclusion I discuss my discovery of the importance of personal identity in dance, and consequent belief that as a non-Native it is not my place to find inspiration in Native American dance for my own creative use. To the question, “How can Native American dance be properly presented onstage?” (a guiding question of mine which I know is problematic for multiple reasons) I reply, “By giving Native Americans authority over their own self-representation onstage” for this seems to be true based on what I have learned about staged Native American in the past and present. Thus, I will not be attempting to create choreography based on what I have learned of Native American dance, and instead am looking forward to exploring my own personal identity and how I might express it.

In sum, I’ve had an extremely informative experience with this project, and I am very grateful for the opportunity. I give my thanks especially to Elizabeth Wiley, my advisor.