Native American Dance Performance: My First Field Trip

About a week ago I went to Cherokee, North Carolina to attend part of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation’s Annual Powwow. Much can be – and surely has been – said about the “authenticity” of Cherokee; the town is clearly a tourist destination, abounding with stereotyped representations of Indian-ness that appeal to non-Native travelers*. While the Powwow was advertised on visitcherokeenc.com and on posters throughout the town as an event open to the public, it did not feel dominated by the presence of tourists. I certainly cannot testify to the “authenticity” of anything, but it seemed to me that in watching the powwow dancers, I was able to glimpse an example of contemporary Native American self-representation through dance.

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Native American Dance/Performance, Choreographer’s Approach: Early Progress

I have now completed between ten and fifteen hours of research, primarily in the form of reading and taking notes from established literature on the subject of dancing in Native North American tribes. While I have much reading left to do, I feel better situated to embark upon the field trips which I am in the process of planning, and which I hope will constitute the majority of my research experience. However, I had not expected that these few books would go so far towards answering at least the shallower of my initial questions; this is a humbling affirmation of the ignorance with which I began the study, and which underlies some of my original lines of inquiry. However, that I have derived useful knowledge from written literature is encouraging. Perhaps the most important idea I have found, implicitly or explicitly, in these books, is that reading scholarly publications on Native American matters is not a substitute for the real familiarity with the culture that comes from in-person interaction. At the very least, I believe I have added important vocabulary and concepts to my mental toolkit, so that a more thorough understanding of the process and performance of dance in Native North American tribes might become accessible to me.

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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.

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