Native American culture is alive and well these days. It thrives in its own traditions, merits and creative output. The Powwow is a social gathering that combines all these aspects and more into one cohesive moment that lasts well into the memories of those that attend. This list here is what I consider to be the best dances of today’s “modern” powwow. I’m not going to go into too much detail about Native American history and Powwow etiquette. For that you should perhaps look up the definition on Wikipedia, but for these dances you should, hopefully, get a basic grasp of what it all entails.
Oh, and lastly, please do not refer to dancers’ outfits as “costumes”. The term that should be used is “regalia”. The outfits are painstakingly made with hours, upon hours of time spent crafting them. They each represent the dancer themselves and no, you can’t find these items in a costume shop.
10. Tiny Tots
Tiny Tots is reserved for children only. It’s the basic building block that leads them into their traditions and culture. Some little one’s start off right after they learn to walk, often accompanied by their parents when dancing around the Powwow circle. They are not required to be perfect, nor are they required to do it at hard levels with intensity often reserved for adults. It’s a simple showcase, often the first competition of any Powwow, and a real crowd pleaser for friends, family, and spectators.
9. Hoop Dance
The Hoop Dance, another special showcase, is not done at most Powwows, but instead performed for bigger, showier gatherings. The dance style is a simple one-two-one-two, but with all focus on the act of using the hoops to make various shapes and patterns. It’s a “story” telling dance and the skills required to do it are tough to master. Like all Powwow dancing, the footwork and items used become an extension of your body, thus becoming second nature.
8. Women’s Traditional Buckskin / Cloth
Elegance, poise, and beauty; these combined make Northern/Southern style Buckskin and cloth. The dances are relatively similar in movements, but different in looks and design based upon one’s tribe or region. The dancers move more slowly, often at a graceful pace keeping time with the drum beats. The swaying motion of their Buckskin fringes or Cloth shawls must be in a fluid perfection while the dancers bow and bend their knees. These dances demonstrate the strength, status, and beauty of Native American women. Judges in contest songs look for gracefulness, stature, poise, and overall presentation.
7. Men’s Southern Straight
A “gentlemen’s” dance, Men’s Southern Straight has a lot in common with Men’s Traditional (more on that in a bit) by means of similar footwork, but in regards to regalia, a whole lot more subdued. It’s a graceful dance, the slowest of the men’s style’s and often overlooked. It shouldn’t be though, because it’s a gesture of old ways and a great source of Native American history through movements that do such things as mimicking hunting tactics by watching the ground, looking into the distance for any evidence, and pointing out tracks.
6. Men’s Northern Traditional
For most spectators, this is the “authentic” looking Powwow dance. The outfits of each dancer look very old and presumably used in the days pre-colonization. It’s a very powerful dance and one that shows Native American history in all its glory. Some items used by the dancers are passed down from grand-fathers, to fathers, to sons and even older than that. The bustles on the backs of the dancers are usually made from Eagle feathers or some other type of raptor. This is one dance that should not be missed.
5. Men’s Grass
According to traditional stories, a young crippled boy was called to go out onto the prairie and find guidance and direction. As he walked about he noticed the swaying motion of the grass and the bend of the stocks. He mimicked these movements in a vision of which he demonstrated to his people. He regained the use of his legs, thus the Grass Dance was born. The idea behind this dance is like the story told, to mimic the movements of grass. By patting one’s foot and then repeating the motion with the other, the dancer can smooth the ground to bend and fold while his regalia flows in motion like the Grass of which is was inspired.
4. Women’s Fancy Shawl
Fancy Shawl is the opposite to Men’s Fancy (see below) in which women go all out in a vast and fast paced style that flows and prances with high energy and kinetic responses. Besides the artistry of their vests and beadwork, the main focal point of the dancers outfit is the shawl. The shawl represents the present form of women’s tradition in which women used to wear shawls to cover themselves in the olden days. The shawl is designed by each dancer and contained within their designs are the dancers personality and beauty and when danced, a resemblance to a cocoon opening.
3. Men’s Chicken Dance
The first time I witness Men’s Chicken Dance was Gathering of Nations 2006 at the pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s one of the dances that’s making the rounds and become more and more popular. The dancers are supposed to mimic a male prairie chicken or grouse during the courting season. It’s faster paced than Men’s Traditional and Grass, but more often than not, it’s included with those dances in contest songs. The outfit is easy to spot with the small bustle on the back and the feather plumes adorning the beadwork. Like all male roaches, or “head dresses” each one is different according to the dancer’s preference. Some Chicken Dancers use piano wire to hang feather fluffs which bounce when dancing to the drum beats.
2. Women’s Jingle
I consider this to be the smoothest of all the female dance styles. Women’s Jingle goes way way back to the olden days and comes from a northern traditional story about a man who had a vision. This vision showed several women wearing specific dresses with various dangling objects and a peculiar dance. The women showed the man how to make the dresses and conduct the dance which was meant for healing. The Jingle Dance originates from this story and in today’s modern Powwow it still is performed. The outfits are usually made from different types of cloth and hold several “jingles” that make the clacking noise associated with it. In more traditional ways, the jingles were made from bird bones or deer hooves, but in present contemporary styles, the jingles are made from used tobacco can lids that are cleaned, cut, and molded into cone shapes. A feather fan is also used and held up high during the honor beats that accompany the songs.
1. Men’s Fancy
This is it. The hardest, showiest, and most exciting of all Powwow dances. Men’s Fancy comes from Oklahoma and was made by the Ponca tribe. It’s based off the War Dance of the prairie days. It quickly became popular during Wild West shows and various local exhibitions. It’s differentiated by the style and pace. Each dancer wears two feather “bustles” on their back that are either made entirely of Eagle feathers or down feathers. The outfit is also fitted with goat hide leggings, bells below the knee, beaded moccasins, beaded belts and side drops, sequined/beaded vests/capes, two sticks held in each hand (one sometimes being a whistle), and finally, the roach. The dance style is often very fast, with different variations thrown into one song like the crow-hop, medium war, and the ruffle. Songs tend to be very fast, often out drumming the dancers and usually ending on the stop of a dime. Sometimes singers try to “trick” the dancers by having midway stops and vocal only sections instead of drumming. Highly regarded as the show stopper, Men’s Fancy is the best of the best.
My name is Schuyler Deal and I come from Oklahoma. I’m a writer with a BFA in creative writing form the Institute of American Indian Arts and am of the Creek and Seminole tribes of Oklahoma. I have been going to Powwows my entire life and dance Men’s Fancy along with my other family members who also dance in different styles.