A group of men with traditional regalia and accessories perform a variety of traditional dance styles.

Anthropology: Significance of Dance in the Expression of Native American Culture

Black and white silhouettes of several people dancing.
Dance silhouettes

Dance in Culture

The performing art of dance and its sequential movements has held considerable importance in cultures across the world throughout history. The cultural significance of dance is undeniable, whether the dance is improvised for self-expression, or symbolic of beliefs.

Theatrical dances are story-telling performances to be viewed by an audience. Performers often dance on a stage and provide visual interpretation of music. Classical dance forms are usually theatrical, such as western ballet. Specially designed scenery sets or costumes may accompany such a dance.

Participatory dances serve the purpose of social engagement. Such dances are more fulfilled for free expression and enjoyment, or ritualistic purposes. Dances like ballroom dancing require partners, while others like line dances require a large group of participants. Participatory dances often have expected steps for all in a group to follow. Some participatory dances, including solo dancing, may be a purposeful performance or free expression without precise choreography. When the purpose of the dance is ritualistic, every component of the dance may closely follow defining guidelines.

Ritualistic dances are especially important to cultural expression, and to an extent, anthropological understanding of diverse traditions and beliefs. These dances may be theatrical or participatory, and great or minor in symbolism, but still possess significance to any culture’s values.

A group of men with traditional regalia and accessories perform a variety of traditional dance styles.
Harry Littlebird and the Iron Horse Dancers perform an intertribal dance during the 2015 Brooksville Native American Festival. The dance includes a variety of traditional dance styles.

Dance and Native American Cultures

Dance has always been of great importance to Native American cultures. Dances can embody ceremony, religious ritual, gratitude, duty, celebration, and more. The many purposes that dances can have in Native American cultures are indicative of values, beliefs, and traditions. Many dances are specific to tribes and regions. Public, semi-public, and private dances alike are common, and the dance’s purpose can determine this status. Some private dances, for example, may be for prayer, courting, initiations, and other personal affairs.

It is common across Native American cultures for dances to be held on broad stages, such as around a fire or in a field. Some dances require leaders to guide the movements that make each dance unique. The dancers may be specific individuals, or be open for the entire tribe to participate. The provided music often consists of voices, drums, rattles, and bells. Songs may be sung solo or as a led chorus, and are often in native languages, especially for dances personal to a region or tribe.

Dance communicates stories and artistry in the movements. Dances encourage community interaction and unity, especially those designed for the purpose of welcome. For example, Round Dances represented introductions to guest tribes. Every dance in Native American culture is unique in its meaning and purpose, just as it is in the rhythm that guides the participants.

Importance of dance in Native American culture

The great importance that dance has in diverse Native American cultures is completely representative of the anthropological significance dance has in embodying cultural beliefs, stories, practices, and more. Dance is a widely encompassing form of cultural expression that preserves cultural values and history. This partly explains how relevant dance has proven to be in modern Native American communities. This article will explore the significance of dance to ritualistic practices in Native American cultures.

Seminole Stomp Dance
Seminole Stomp Dance, Big Cypress Reservation, Florida, ca. 1967–1971. Courtesy of the Ah-Tha-Thi-Ki Museum, with special permission from photographer David Garnett

Ceremonial Dances

Ceremonies in Native American culture often honor religious beliefs, ranging from divine worship to signifying important changes in life. Ceremonies and ceremonial dances also range in the permitted participants and audiences, as some have stricter guidelines and some are intensely private.

Social and Religious Ceremonies

An example of a ceremonial dance marking an individual’s initiation to a new stage of life is the Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance. This dance is an adaptation of the Ceremonial Butterfly Dance, evident in the colorful regalia. The cultural beliefs surrounding this dance are to recognize how a young Native American woman transitions from her childhood to being a young lady, much like a butterfly leaving the cocoon. This dance is also fairly recent in its development, which shows how cultural practices can grow and adapt as generations carry on.

Multiple Eastern Woodland tribes practice the Stomp Dance. The Muscogee tribe calls this dance “Opvnky Haco” in reference to medicine, and many Southeastern Native Americans associate this dance with the Green Corn Ceremony. This dance is a prayer performed at night multiple times over the summer for community prosperity. The ceremony may include over 30 performances all with different leaders. The participants are both men and women that follow the leader circling a sacred fire counter-clockwise while singing and dancing. The youngest dancers are at the end of the line, and the most experienced are at the front. This dance often lasts from nightfall until dawn, when the event ends. The participants engage in a religious fast from after midnight throughout the entire night while awake, and take medicine from ceremoniously gathered and prepared roots.

Religious Rituals

Performers dance the ceremonious Sun Dance every year, usually for the summer solstice after a year of preparations. The eagle is the main symbol of this dance, representing unity of the body and spirit. Different tribes perform this dance uniquely. Most iterations include drum music, fasting, offerings, and praying with a pipe. Each tribe also uses their own stories and songs passed through generations. The United States government actively suppressed Sun Dances. Today, these ceremonies are held intermittently as a result of being forced underground.

Ceremonial dances with greater focus on religious symbolism may also change over time. The Hopi Snake Dance is an annual Hopi ritual. Scholars believe this dance to be an adaptation of a water ceremony due to Hopi beliefs that snakes were guardians of springs. Today, this dance is essentially a rain ceremony that honors Hopi ancestors. The participants dance with live snakes in their mouths, and the snakes are their brothers who will deliver prayers for rain to the gods and the ancestors. The dance occurs on the final and 16th day of the celebration. The performers take an emetic before the dance, and often, an Antelope Priest supports the snakes’ weight. After the dance, the snakes are freed in the four directions to carry the prayers. This dance is only open to tribal members because of illegal photography and disrespect for Hopi ceremonies, causing removal from public audiences.

Connection to Culture

Ceremonial dances in Native American cultures are ritualistic and often closely tied to religious beliefs. The annual Sun Dance is an example of a religious celebration. Social and cultural values may both be embodied in ceremonial dances. This includes initiation into new stages of life, like the Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance, and the community-wide religious practices of the Stomp Dance. Religious symbolism can develop over time naturally through intertribal diversity. Symbolism has also adapted to the suppression of Native American practices and beliefs by the United States and Canadian governments. The religious beliefs, social practices, and rituals present in ceremonial dances demonstrate their significance to Native American cultural expression.

A man performing the Hoop Dance against a clear blue sky. The hoops on his arms resemble wings.
A participant of the annual World Championship Hoop Dance Contest was held at the Heard Museum in Phoenix

Story-Telling Dances

Dances also serve the purpose in Native American cultures of telling stories. Just as dances may honor legends in their ceremonial performances, dances also relay entire narratives of their own.

Popular Stories

The Hoop Dance has been popular for centuries, and uses hoops to create shapes using the dance’s movements. The dance follows a drum rhythm with quick moves that interlock the hoops to resemble animals in different ways. The hoops symbolize the circle of life, and other life elements like humans, animals, and nature. Today, solo dancers begin with one hoop for the circle of life and adding more throughout. The Hoop Dance, while honoring the restoration of wellness to the world, also relays different stories based on the many legends of its creation.

Some tribes believe that a Northern Plains man was dying and wanted to leave behind the hoops and dance as a gift. Southwest tribes tell the story of hoops as tools to teach dexterity. The Anishinaabe culture believes in a tale of a boy who was shunned for preferring to watch animals in solitude to other typical activities.

Though as he watched the animals’ movements, he created the Hoop Dance and taught his tribe how animals lived. This dance is popular among Native American tribes and cultural beliefs for the different narratives it can tell, and the shared symbolism honoring life and nature. Today, many tribes practice evolved forms of this dance and even hold competitions. The annual contest at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, for example, is of great renown.

Private Stories

The Gourd Dance also tells its origin story and Pow-Wows often coincide with its performance. Kiowa legend states that a man heard a song from a dancing red wolf that told him to bring the dance to his people. The end of the Gourd Dance includes a howl to honor that red wolf. Other tribes, like the Cheyenne and Comanche, have their own narratives told by this dance. The Kiowa call the dance “Ti-ah pi-ah,” which means “ready to go, ready to die.”. The performers are men, but women can participate behind them. Dancers perform around the circular stage wearing floor-length sashes and moving to the drum beat and rattles. As the United States banned Native American dances through the 1900s, the dance fell from practice to be revived decades later. Some tribes today allow all to participate in the dance, even non-Native Americans, though the Kiowa people do not.

Connection to Culture

The purpose of these dances is to recall and honor Native American legends. They actively use cultural symbolism in the performance. The importance of dance in maintaining and maintaining and practicing Native American culture through dance is clear. The publicity of the Hoop Dance shows how dance can spread celebration of Native American stories and culture. The privacy of the Gourd Dance shows how the Kiowa people seek protection of the maintenance of their traditions.

A young adult in colorful regailia performing a Rain Dance.
Native American Rain Dance

Dances for Success

Similar to ceremonial purposes, dances are also rituals to ensure success. These dances are most often religious, but serve the purpose of asking to receive something, material or fortune.

The Rain Dance is ceremonial for agricultural people, especially in dry climates. The performance implored the gods to bring rain for crops. The dance is held in the spring, or when rain is needed. Men and women both participate, and the movements resemble weaving rather than dancing in a circle like in most other ceremonies. Tribes all have unique rituals associated with the performance, including special costumes that range from body paint, jewelry, headdresses, and masks. Feathers and blue accessories are common to symbolize rainy, windy weather. This dance is still commonly performed today, especially in the southwestern tribes, though not excluding the southeast.

The War Dance performs religious rites in the evening to ensure success for the next day’s battle. The participants were warriors, and the dance invoked courage and purpose. This ceremony has various iterations across tribes, but always has singing, prayers, sacred objects, and can last for entire nights and days. Southwest, Woodlands, and Pacific Northwest tribes would ritualistically wear costumes and masks to symbolize gods and creatures. Some tribes also burned incense, painted faces, or held additional purification ceremonies. The instruments would be drums, whistles, and rattles. There are dances that have taken over rituals for success in war in some tribes, such as the Fancy Dance for the Kiowa, Cheyenne, Comanche tribes and others. The Shoshone and Arapaho tribes rename this dance as the Wolf Dance, as wolves represent warriors. The Paiute tribe rename this dance as the Fancy Bustle, referencing the costume worn by the dancers.

Connection to Culture

Tribes that require particular fortunes may practice dances for success to a greater extent. The Rain Dance’s popularity in drier climates is an example of this. The War Dance is a ritual to prepare for battle believed to guarantee success. The performances of these dances directly engage in Native American beliefs beyond honoring or remembering them. The use of dance as an active practice of culture in these ways further emphasizes its importance to understanding traditions and beliefs.

Black and white illustration of the Ghost Dance
The Ghost Dance

Dances to Preserve Culture

Throughout the oppression against Native American cultures of the United States and Canadian governments, tribes developed and adapted practices to preserve their beliefs under threat of law. The banning of dances continued from the late 1800s to the 1900s. The intertribal Pow-Wow circuit managed to earn revenue during the Great Depression with dance contests. Tribes even used dance to maintain their cultural beliefs and inspire hope during times of suppression.

The Ponca tribe created the Fancy Dance from the 1920s-1930s. During this time, the United States and Canadian governments had banned Native American religious dances. The purpose of the Fancy Dance was to preserve their religious beliefs. The War Dance inspired the Fancy Dance’s creation as an acceptable dance to be performed for visitors to reservations. Following suit, other tribes also began to create new dances, styles, and costumes. The Comanche and Kiowa were known for adding these creations to Fancy Dance interactions in the 1930s. Tribes allowed women to perform alongside men by the 1940s. The movements in this dance are fast and athletic, and the costumes are bright and colorful beaded bodices, headwear, shawls, and more. Decorative accessories included jewelry, ribbon work, embroidery, and feathers. This dance is very common today in public shows and competitions.

Dances and Movements

The Ghost Dance was a dance and a spiritual movement. Tribes created the Ghost Dance movement to support Native American communities during struggles on the reservations. These dances and their movements provided hope and preservation of cultural beliefs. The revivalistic Ghost Dance Movement of the late 1800s reflected a cult structure that was uncertain in differentiation between tribes. The purpose of the dance was to connect living and dead spirits to end American expansion and unite tribes. Choreography was a traditional circle dance. Each tribe personalized the ritual as it  spread throughout the western United States.

The Ghost Dance fell out of practice in 1890, and removed a connection to cultural identity for many Native Americans. The rhetoric of the Wounded Knee Occupation during the American Indian Movement in 1973 provided a unifying identity greater than tribal differences. This unification of pan-Indian alliances provided greater strength against threats from the dominant society. The American Indian Movement honored and reinterpreted the Ghost Dance and the massacre at Wounded Knee of 1890. This bound the past to the present and earned rightful attention. The Ghost Dance as a movement spread hope for respectable living for Native Americans, cooperation between tribes, and ending American expansion. Its remembrance in the American Indian Movement nearly a century later emphasized the importance of recalling Native American identities.

Connection to Culture

The preservation of Native American cultures and protection of hope was integral to the survival of their beliefs. This is especially true during times of active suppression by overpowering societies. Dances were developed to allow culture to thrive as much as possible without legal repercussions, as the Fancy Dance was. Dance is proven to be of incredible significance to Native American cultures. The Ghost Dance was used for its own movement against expansion, and again in movements for protecting Native American rights and identities. Dance is deeply tied to community survival and cultural strength, and has been acknowledged as such by Native American societies throughout the centuries.

A line of children performing a Hoop Dance.
Young Native Americans Innovate While Honoring Their Traditions: Hip Hop Hoop Dance

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Ceremonial dances provide multiple functions. They are forms of worship and initiations to continue the practicing of Native American beliefs. Their meanings can develop over time, as can restrictions of privacy, and they are performances of culture. Storytelling dances, like all dances, vary across tribes in their characteristics and legends. Some stories relate to the creation of the dance, or tell another legend of value to Native American beliefs and traditions. Common factors and behaviors can also persist across tribal variations, showing both unity and diversity in this cultural representation.

Dances performed for success are most often ceremonial and religious in nature. Yet they are more than the practicing of religious rites. They also implore divinity, spirits and gods, for success and fortune while honoring them at the same time. These dances not only symbolize religious beliefs, but actively engage in them to fulfill a specific purpose. Dances performed for preservation of culture and inspiration of hope grow in popularity during times of challenge and struggle. These dances are even incorporated into major movements to protect Native American cultures from oppression and erasures of identities.

Dances are powerful enough in Native American communities to be significant expressions, worship, embodiments, and preservations of culture. Naturally, diversity prevails in tribes incorporating their own costumes, movements, music, and legends into dances that may be commonly practiced. Over time, customs develop as well, whether naturally through increased diversity or for survival’s sake against suppression. Regulations for privacy and participants have shifted within tribes over the decades for the sake of best continuing their traditions.

To anthropological understandings of Native American cultures, the prominence of dance and the religious, political, and social roles it plays are of great significance.

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