The Gourd Dance
The Gourd Dance emanates from the Oklahoma tribes and originated with the Kiowa Gourd Clan, a warrior society. Intertribal Gourd Dance societies host Gourd Dances prior to a regular dance sessions. Most of the dancers are ex-servicemen and veterans of the last three wars. A gourd dancer’s distinctive dance clothes consist of a red and blue blanket draped over the shoulders so that both ends hang in front, a woven sash at the waist, and bandoliers of mesquite beans or large cut glass beads worn over street clothes.
In their right hands, dancers shake rattles made of gourds or German silver canisters, in their left they hold loose feathers or eagle fans. Beadwork is usually of the fine-cut bead variety associated with peyote ceremonies.
Singers stand and hold the drum above the ground or use hand drums. Women wear shawls and dance at the outer edge of the dance circle. Men dance in a stationary position, lifting their heels off the ground in beat to the drum. They dance slowly. circling around in lines or arcs, stopping at appropriate times in the song, keeping beat with their rattles.
Today the snake dance is purely social, unlike the ceremonial dance of the same name danced by the Hopi of the Southwest to produce rain. Two men lead the long file of dancers, one at each end. As the line of dancers follow behing the leader, he leads them into a serpentine path, coiling the entire line into a tight spiral. On a cue from the leader, the dancers do an about-face and follow the leader at the other end. The line of dancers twist, coil and change directions throughout the song, resembling a long serpent.
Formerly the exclusive dance of princess and women in leadership, the women’s Traditional Buckskin Dance in now open to all. Traditionally, this was a dance of the northern tribes, but is now danced by southern tribes as well. The northern dancer usually stays in one area, lightly bouncing to the beat of the drum, displaying dignity and grace.
The slower beat and step of the southern version of the dance is in sharp contrast to the faster dance of the northern tribes. At any given time during the song, the dancer salutes the drum with her fan in a beautiful expression, ‘‘the catching of the spirit of the drum.’’
What To Watch For: Discipline is essential to the slow, graceful movements of the dance. Dancing in perfect harmony with the drum, while never breaking the sedate spirit in the essence. The dips and sways are executed with no break in dignity.
Women’s Fancy Shawl
The Fancy Shawl Dance is the most modern of the women’s dances, it gives them the opportunity to demonstrate their individual agility and grace.
Dance steps are Individually choreographed, but always in harmony with the beat of the drum. Many of the moves are very intricate. The spectator who is close enough to watch the movement of the feet will be rewarded with an added dimension, but the overall effect can be seen from any distance. Though the Fancy Shawl involves more motion and agility than most women’s dances, the grace of the woman is always expressed.The dress is brilliantly colored and often adorned with beautifully designed beadwork. Beadwork is also often a compliment to the shawl which is a integral part of the dance.
What To Watch For: Since each dancer has her own individual style, how well the steps and motions express and harmonize with the drum is the essence. Being in time with the beat is important, as is the ability to end the dance precisely.
Individual style is brought to this regal dance, which is the perfect counterpart to the Men’s Straight Dance. It is a dance of elegance, rather that one of motion. The slow, graceful walk and the gentle sway in exact time to the music contribute to the stateliness of the dance. The gentle motion of the shawl folded over the arm is a harmony with the motion of the body of the drumbeat.
The dancer’s dress may vary according to the tribe and expression of the individual. Buckskin or cloth leggins and moccasins are beaded in symbolic ways. Beadwork and intricate ribbon designs decorate the regalia which is also often complimented by a long necklace made of tubular beads. A gentle tinkle provided by tin cones and silver tubes on the belt becomes and additional accompaniment to the dance.
What To Watch For: The cloth dance is one of dignity, that attitude should maintain throughout. Judging includes the ability of the dancer to stay in time with the drum, to create a sway of the shawl and to stop in time with the drum.
Women’s Jingle Dress
The Jingle Dress Dance originated among the tribes of Canada and is relativel-y new to the southern plains. In the last few years, women of other tribes have begun to learn the dance and perform in competition.
This is an example of a very old dance which held a spiritual meaning, though the meaning is somewhat clouded by time. It is a dance of pride and dignity, which allows a significant amount of individual expression. There is no set choreographic patterns, but is quite active and very exciting to watch.
The Jingle Dress is not only very colorful, but furnishes much of the musical accompaniment for the dance. Long, tubular cones form a fringe-like decoration which jingles’ as the dancer moves. Few dances can match the sheer brilliance of costume and sound of the Jingle Dress Dance.
What To Watch For: Dance steps and body movement which are not in time to the music are easily detected because of the music of the dress itself. Pride and grace is demanded in the attitude of the dance, and certain reverence should be exhibited.
Men’s Grass Dance
Among the most ancient of the surviving tribal dances is the Grass Dance. At least three tribes dance their version, with each of them having different ideas as to their origin of the dance To some it simply is an expression of the gentle, swaying movement of grass on a windy day. The abundance of fringes and ribbons on the dress enhance the graceful movement of the dancers’ bodies as they sway in the imaginary breeze.
Another tribe remembers dancing for the purpose of flattening the long prairie grass to prepare the ground for a larger tribal ceremony. To others, it originated to celebrate victory over and enemy. Any one or all of these stories may be true. What is left for our enjoyment is one of the oldest expressions of traditional culture.
What To Watch For: The motion of the bodies should cause the flowing regalia to move in a way reminiscent of the long, blowing grass of the prairie. It should be danced in perfect time to the music, responding as the grass does to the motion of the wind. This dance is an expression of the harmony of the universe.
The Traditional Dance may be the original dance of the Indians of the northern plains. Its origin is lost in antiquity, but its style allows for much individual expression on the part of the dancer. This is the reason for its growth of popularity among many tribes.
There is a close similarity of story to the Southern Straight Dance, that of war party recounting its feats for the tribe. The interest is heightened by the use of a ‘‘coup stick’’ and the motion of the feather bustles. A much slower tempo allows the dancer to convey his emotions in a singular way. He always faces his enemy, never turning a complete circle. Faces are painted in a way designed to intimidate the imaginary opponent with the fierceness of the brave. The dancer will mimic each element which makes up his regalia.
What To Watch For: Most interesting is watching the story line develop as each dancer challenges the enemy. Even with the slow tempo, the rhythm must be in harmony with the drum. Try to interpret each motion and compare the different ways dancers imitate the eagle or the porcupine.
The Southern Straight Dance, also known as ‘‘traditional’’ to some southern tribes, is a prime example of how past generations recorded in their memories the history of the deeds of the tribe. This is a ‘‘Gentlemen’s’’ dance, which tells a definite story of a hunting or war party in the trail of an animal or an enemy. The dancer is constantly searching for his prey. There is an exuberant ‘‘whoop’’ when the trail is sighted, and the warrior begins to follow the signs of his quarry.
The dress will vary from tribe to tribe, but usually includes a porcupine headdress, ribbonwork and an otter tail extending down the back of the dancer. Singers may heighten interest by composing a new song, or they may sing one of a multitude of songs which may be centuries old.
What To Watch For: The dancers are judged on their ability to stay in step with the beat and to look very convincing in their search. Pay special attention to the ‘‘story line’’, which reveals itself in the actions of the dancers. Look for differences in regalia which may denote tribal differences.
Men’s Fancy Dance
By the turn of the century, when the Indians were no longer at war, the War Dance was taking on a new meaning. It has become a way of recalling deep seated feelings and traditions, and a passing on a sense of pride in Indian culture to new generations. Fancy it is…in regalia…in its intricate steps in the very fast beat of the drum. One can feel and participate in the excitement as each dancer expresses his own emotions in this dance of valor.
Although it is patterned after traditional steps of both northern and southern styles, the Fancy Dance allows the men to exhibit considerable individuality. The fast pace is also a demonstration of stamina. The Fancy Dancers regalia features feather bustles, one at the top of the back and a larger one at the bottom of the back. Headdresses are topped with one or two feathers mounted in rockers which move back and forth with the motion of the head to the beat of the drum.
What To Watch For: Following the rhythm of the drum with the steps, the motion of the head and the flow of the body are important elements in the Fancy Dance. Since the styles are individual, the expression of the emotion of the music and the change of pace from the slower northern style to the faster southern beat are important. As in all Native American dancing, the finish in exact time with the song is significant in the judging.