SIX NATIONS — Today’s competitive powwow dance styles are a blend of many nations, traditions and styles. If you’re visiting a powwow for the first time this summer and want to know a little more about each style, here’s some background information on some of the categories you’ll see competing at the Grand River “Champion of Champions” Powwow.
In general, each style receives two songs to show its ability to dance. first a basic straight song and a second special song. This is done to highlight each dancer’s dancing ability and is an important part of the drumming contest.
Above all, dancers in this category aim to tell you a story. It is usually a hunt, a battle, or a certain victory. The dancers use different moves to illustrate the story they are telling you. crouch, follow, aim, dash and so on. Many dancers learn to dance towards the center of the circle and either tap the pole once or shout during this style. This is done to represent victory over an enemy or victory in the hunt they tell you about. A second stellar traditional male song is called Duck and Dive. Some say that this style of dance appeared during the First World War. The dancers listen very carefully to the slow, hard drumbeats that bend in time as if to dodge artillery fire.
Sounds easy enough, but when wearing badges over 40 pounds, the deep knee bends of a female traditional dancer require a lot of leg strength, good balance, and breath control. Scrubbing is a stationary dance style. The dancers bounce in place in rhythm with the drum spinning ever so slightly. Some say rubbing is the original female style of powwow dancing. When rubbing, dancers try to keep these fringe tips in place. The walking style is when the dancers move around the circle by bending their knees deeply, taking small steps forward. Dancers who use the marching style want to look smooth, controlled, and sleek as their bangs sway to the beat of the drum. They sometimes recognize the loud beats of the drum, called beats of honor, either by leaning forward or raising their fan in the air – depending on the nation they come from.
The Grass Dance originated from young men of the Plains Nations trampling the tall grasses of the prairies to prepare the site for a new village or site for ceremonies. Today’s Grass Dancers try to dance as softly as possible as if they were those long prairie grasses blowing in the wind. For this kind of controlled movement, these Grass Dancers need to be fit and strong. This sometimes results in some fantastic moves that leave 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 movements they do on one foot, they must do with the other foot. It is this intentional act of balanced footwork that makes the Grass Dance so spectacular to watch.
This healing dance comes from the Anishinabek people of Whitefish Bay where a young girl was seriously ill. One of the men received a dream where he saw the dresses, songs and dances that were to be made for her. The women in the community made the dresses, the drummers learned the song, and some women saw the steps to achieve what was given in the dream. As the dancers circled around this young girl, she began to recover and by the end of the night she was healed and dancing with the women.
Today there are two types of competitive Jingle Dances; contemporary and old style. Contemporary dancers use intricate yet gentle footwork, which makes dancing effortless. They wear soft eagle feathers in their hair and raise eagle-tailed fans during beats of honor to “raise” the prayers of the people. Old-fashioned jingle dancers do not wear eagle feathers or glittery materials to honor the original intent of the dance. They are taught to always keep one foot touching the ground to show our connection to the land and to raise their hands during the beats of honor to elevate the prayers of the people.
Feather Fantasy Man
It’s the kind of pow-wow dance that audiences love. It’s fast and furious. Dancers must be in top physical condition to perform the delicate footwork and acrobatic moves that make this style so exciting to watch. It’s not uncommon to see Fancy Feather dancers doing cartwheels, back flips, and splits in competitive dance. The key to being a champion male fancy dancer is keeping the beat while jiggling and swaying the fringes and feathers while twirling hand spinners.
This dance is one of the newest additions to powwow traditions. It is believed to have originated from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows where young men danced hard and fast to impress the crowds. Fantasy dancers are usually called upon to perform Sneak-Up or Trick songs. These blisteringly fast songs ruffle the rhythm of the drums as the dancers twirl, followed by fast sections with abrupt stops. It’s always exciting to watch the dancers perform what the drum is doing and to see them all stay in time with the beat and stop in time. You definitely don’t want to miss this category!
Women’s Fancy Shawl
There are two stories behind the Fancy Shawl Dance. A story says that the dance depicts a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. Although it is a poetically beautiful legend, most dancers agree that the Fancy Shawl dance originated from the Men’s Fancy style. Women of the 1950s wanted to imitate men’s quick and intricate footwork, and so a more feminine version was born using a shawl instead of feather bustles.
Like Jingle, there are contemporary and ancient Fancy Shawl style dancers. Contemporary shawl dancers spin, kick, twirl, jump and travel as fast and furious as male fancy dancers, but light on their feet. The goal is to appear to be floating in the dance arena and almost never touching the ground. Old-fashioned dancers are still fast on their feet, but there’s usually less rotation. The focus is on marrying intricate footwork with a flowing shawl for a seamless performance.