Pow Wow dance styles explained

SIX NATIONS — Today’s competitive pow wow dance styles are a blend of many nations, traditions and styles. If you’re visiting a pow wow for the first time this summer and want to know a bit more about each style, here is some background information on some of the categories you will see competing at the Grand River ‘Champion of Champions’ Pow Wow.

In general each style gets two songs to showcase their dancing ability; first a basic straight song, and a special second song. This is done to highlight the dancing ability of each dancer and is an important part of the drumming contest.

Men’s Traditional

First and foremost – dancers in this category are aiming to tell you a story. Typically it is one of a hunt, a battle, or a certain victory. Dancers utilize different movements to demonstrate the story they are telling you; crouching, tracking, aiming, dashing about and so on. Many dancers are taught to dance toward the centre of the circle and tap once on the pole or shout out during this style. This is done to represent victory over an enemy or victory in the hunt they are telling you about. One stellar Men’s Traditional second song is called the Duck and Dive. Some say this style of dance came about during the First World War. Dancers listen very carefully for slow hard drumbeats bend downward in time as if to dodge artillery fire.

Women’s Traditional

It looks easy enough, but when wearing regalia upwards of 40 lbs, the deep knee bends of a Women’s Traditional Dancer require a lot of leg strength, good balance and breath control. Scrubbing is a stationary dance style. Dancers bounce in place along in time with the drum turning ever so slightly. Some say scrubbing is the original women’s style of pow wow dance. When scrubbing the dancers are trying to keep those fringe tips snapping just right. Walking style is when the dancers travel around the circle in deep knee bends, taking small steps forward. Dancers who use the walking style want to look smooth, controlled and elegant as their fringe sways in time to the drum. They sometimes recognize the strong beats of the drum, called honour beats, by either leaning forward or lifting their fan in the air – depending on what nation they come from.

Men’s Grass

Grass dancing was birthed from young men of the plains nations stomping down tall prairie grasses to prepare the site of a new village or site for ceremonies. Today’s Grass Dancers try to dance as smooth as possible as if they are those long prairie grasses blowing in the wind. For that kind of controlled movement, these Grass Dancers must be fit and strong. This sometimes results in some fantastic movements leaving you wondering, “How did he do that?!”

This style is known as one of the medicine dances. The fluid swaying motions represent a sense of balance with the natural order of creation. Grass Dancers are taught that the motions they do on one foot, they must do with the other foot. It is that intentional act of balanced footwork that makes the Grass Dance so spectacular to watch.

Women’s Jingle

This healing dance comes from the Anishinabek people of Whitefish Bay where a young girl was gravely ill. One of the men received a dream where he saw the dresses, songs and dances that needed to be done for her. Women in the community made the dresses, drummers learned the song and some women were shown the steps to carry out what was given in the dream. As the dancers went around this young girl she started to recover and by the end of the night she was healed and up dancing with the women.

Today there are two kinds of competitive Jingle Dances; contemporary and old style. Contemporary dancers use complex but gentle footwork making the dance look effortless. They wear soft eagle plumes in their hair and raise eagle tail fans during honour beats to ‘lift up’ the prayers of the people. Old style jingle dancers don’t wear eagle feathers or sparkly materials to pay respect to the original intention of the dance. They are taught to always keep one foot touching the ground to show our connection to the earth and lift their hands during honour beats to raise the prayers of the people.

Men’s Fancy Feather

This is the kind of pow wow dancing that spectators love. It is fast and furious. Dancers must be in top physical condition to execute the tricky footwork and acrobatic movements that make this style so exciting to watch. It’s not uncommon to see Fancy Feather dancers do cartwheels, backflips and splits in competitive dancing. Key to being a champion Men’s Fancy dancer is keeping on beat while making fringe and feather bustles shaking and swaying all the while twirling hand held spinners.

This dance is one of the more recent additions to pow-wow traditions. It is believed to have originated from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows where young men would dance hard and fast to impress the crowds. Fancy Dancers are usually called on to perform Sneak-Up or Trick Songs. These extremely fast songs ruffle the drum beat while dancers twirl about, followed by fast sections with sudden stops. It is always exciting to see the dancers interpret what the drum is doing and to see them all stay in time with the beat and stop on time. You definitely don’t want to miss this category!

Women’s Fancy Shawl

There are two stories behind the Fancy Shawl Dance. One story says that the dance represents a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. While that is a poetically beautiful legend, most dancers agree that the Fancy Shawl dance grew from the Men’s Fancy style. Women in the 1950’s wanted to mimic the quick and complex footwork of the men, and thus a more feminine version was born utilizing a shawl instead of feather bustles.

Like Jingle, there are Contemporary and Old Style Fancy Shawl dancers. Contemporary shawl dancers are spinning, kicking, twirling, leaping and traveling as fast and as furious as the men’s fancy dancers, but light on their feet. The goal is to look as if you are floating about the dance arena and barely ever touch the ground. Old style dancers are still quick on their feet, but there is usually less spinning involved. The focus is to marry intricate footwork with smooth shawling to make for a seamless performance.

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