Prairie Pow Wows have taken the continent by storm; the growing popularity of which comes to fruition at the Manito Ahbee Festival, May 17 to 21. Here, nations from across North America gather to share in Indigenous culture, celebrate the Creator and honour the seven sacred teachings. The International Pow Wow is certainly one of the most eye-catching events during the festival, teeming with competition, demos, family fun, and of course, a rich mosaic of colour and creative expression. Here are 10 dances to watch for at this year’s Pow Wow…
The Women’s Fancy Dance is one of the most recognizable dances at Pow Wow, featuring a lively pace and a brightly coloured shawl. Traditional Fancy Shawl outfits are simple and represent the elements traditionally worn by women. This includes a basic dress, a yoke, moccasins and leggings. Like many other dances, the Fancy Shawl dance has changed with the times and the regalia has become brighter and fancier. While the dancing now has less footwork than its original flair, it also has more twirls and kicks.
Getting jiggy with it is no problem for the Métis, who draw influence from First Nations footwork and Scottish, Irish and French-Canadian dances to form their own unique style. When up-tempo fiddle music fills the arena, the Red River Jig takes center stage and the dancing begins. Speed and stamina are essential for the upbeat art of Jigging, which can be performed solo, in pairs or in a large group. Repeated sequences of movements form elaborate patterns, making Jigging a true treat for the eyes.
Men’s Fancy Bustle
Men’s Fancy requires stamina, agility, and a whole lot of oomph. This dance requires quick steps and is accented with jumps and colourful twirls. Multi-coloured ribbons add even more movement to the dance, while bells attached to the ankle ring with every step. The regalia features bustles, a roach, fully beaded capes, belts, angora fur and feathers, making it one of the most elaborate and eye catching dances at the Pow Wow. Just try to keep your eyes off of it (you can’t)!
If you think the Jingle dance has all the bells and whistles, you would be correct. But, like many other Pow Wow dances, the Jingle has much more to it than just beautiful regalia and movement. In northern Minnesota, a medicine man’s granddaughter fell ill. In a dream, the man saw a spirit wearing a jingle dress who told him to make the dress and put in on his daughter. The man and his wife went to work at creating the dress and put it on their granddaughter in the dance hall. She circled around the room once, needing to be carried to make it. The second time around, she could barely walk and needed assistance. The third time, she could walk without assistance. Finally, when the fourth circle around the room was made, the granddaughter could dance.
Today, Jingle is still known as a healing dance but is always evolving in style. While each dance has traditional elements incorporated in the regalia and steps, there are more and more individual touches being added over time. The leather, cloth or velvet base of the dress is adorned by between 400 and 700 jingles, commonly made from molding the lids of snuff cans. Contemporary style Jingle is colourful, energetic and has faster footwork, while the traditional style requires both feet to be kept on the ground, connected to the Earth.
Prairie Chicken Dance
No, this isn’t your arm-flapping, Manitoba social Chicken Dance. This Prairie Chicken Dance has sacred meaning, and also isn’t embarrassing to watch family members perform (can’t say the same for the former). The origin story for the Chicken Dance comes from the Blackfoot, where a young man ventured out to hunt. One day, he came across birds dancing in tall grass. The man was very hungry, and decided to shoot and kill one of the birds with a bow and arrow. After returning home, his family ate the bird. Later that night, the man went to sleep and had a dream about the spirit of the prairie chicken. The chicken asked the man why he killed him, to which the man replied that he needed to feed his family. The prairie chicken then taught the man a dance, and instructed him to go forth and teach it to others. If he did not, the prairie chicken would return to claim the man’s life. This was the deal made in exchange for taking the chicken’s life.
The dance continues to hold sacred meaning at Pow Wows. The movement imitates the mating dance of the prairie chicken grouse, while the regalia reflects the proud strut of the prairie chicken rooster.
Women’s Traditional dancing and regalia varies from community to community. Here in Manitoba, Women’s Traditional Dancers usually dance in Northern Plains style. They are known as stationary dancers, surrounding the outer edge of the area with gentle movements to the rhythm of the drum. This contrasts with the traditional dancers of Southwest, who move around the arena with much more animation. This dance is inspired by the woman’s role as caregiver, backbone of the family and mainstay of the community. Buckskin or cloth dresses are decorated with long fringe and elaborate beadwork. Additional decorations include porcupine quillwork, shells, elk teeth, headbands, browns, purses, moccasins and brass beads.
The oldest form of Indigenous dance is rooted deeply in symbolism and traditional. Each dancer’s regalia is different without a single prescribed look. Elements can reflect any story or animal the dancer chooses, and can incorporate roach, eagle feathers, plumes, bone breastplates and chokers made from animal bones. These elements are often believed to symbolize the animals that the Creator put on earth, as well as being representative of warrior garb. Men’s traditional dancers will often relay a story of themselves, their community, or teachings through a single song’s dance movements.
The Hoop Dance is not a traditional Pow Wow Dance, but one that has grown in popularity for both men and women. The dance represents the sacred circle of life, with the performer being in the center of that circle. The dance is a form of storytelling, starting out with only one hoop before more hoops are added in to represent other elements of life. Hoops move carefully along the dancer to form dynamic and static shapes.
The Smoke Dance has multiple tales of origin and is known to come from the Haudenosaunee people in the east. Today, the Smoke Dance is performed for show at Pow Wows around North American, with a single singer on a hand drum. The regalia for both genders is fairly plain, featuring some raised or flat beadwork, but the dance is anything but. Both men and women dancers move quickly across the arena with fast footwork. Women step in beat to the drum and men participate with a slightly slower tempo.
Rooted in history, the Grass Dance is a fluid dance style that definitely lives on the fringes. Traditionally, grass dancers had the special task of flattening the grass in the arena before a Pow Wow began. But the name Grass Dancers does not come from this act; instead, it originates with the old technique of braiding sweet grass to a dancer’s belt to create a swaying element. Today, the regalia is colourful and bendable, leaning with each movement of the dancer.
Special thanks to Tasha Spillet and Dené Sinclair for contributing and sharing their knowledge for the creation of this blog post.