Pow-wow Dance: Styles, Teachings and Meanings

A Pow wow is a celebration of life and community gathering that allows family and friends to get together and share the Native American cultural traditions. In the Pow Wow 101, we discussed the basic meanings and descriptions of a pow wow and the etiquette one should follow when attending a Pow wow. One of the most important components of a pow wow are the dancers who dance around the circle to the beat of the drum, and display their style of dance. 

The dancing around the circle represents the cycle of life, and its ongoing connection to all things in this world. Most often, the dancers move in a clockwise motion around the circle to follow the direction of the sun. The Grand Entry, the beginning of each pow-wow, starts in the ‘Eastern Doorway’ as the sun rises in the East - representing the beginning of a new day - further displaying the connection Native people have to the natural cycles of mother earth.

There are several different dance styles, some for male dancers and others for female dancers. The male dance styles are: Fancy, Grass, Prairie Chicken, and Traditional (some variations between Northern and Southern). The female dance styles are: Fancy, Jingle, and Traditional (again some variations between Northern and Southern).

Men’s Grass Dance

Men’s Grass dancers wear strands of yarn or ribbon hanging from their arms, waist, and legs to represent grass in the spirit world. This graceful dance entails flowing motion to mimic the prairie grasses. The story of the Grass dance comes from a young man who had one hindered foot and wanted to dance. He then travelled to the prairie where he prayed for guidance as he limped up a hill.

On top of that hill, he decided to develop his own style of dance so he started swaying and swooping the grass. It has been said, this is the origin of the grass dance one might see at a powwow.

Men’s Traditional Dance

Northern

The Northern Men’s Traditional dancers wear bustles of long feathers (usually from an eagle) that burst from the dancer's waist. Many of these outfits or regalia pieces are passed down through the generations, owned by their fathers and grandfathers. For the men’s traditional dance, spectators will sometimes stand and remove hats because of the abundance of eagle feathers in the outfits.

Southern Straight

Southern Men’s Traditional also known as Southern Straight, usually wear cotton, buckskin pants, a shirt and a breastplate of bones that may stop at the waist. Breastplates sometimes go down to the knees as well and the Southern Traditional dancers also wear a roach (or a combed headdress) made of deer tail hair or porcupine guard hair.

Men’s Fancy Dance

Men's Fancy Feather dancers are often youthful, this is the most active and athletic dance styles. The brilliantly colored regalia have double bustles behind their backs with smaller bustles on their arms. Spectators are often drawn to the feathery display of color during this energetic dance. Particularly in the Men’s Fancy dance, a friendly competition may emerge between the singers and the dancers stopping with the end beat can mean winning or losing points (in competition powwow). Sometimes the singers will perform "trick songs," containing an unexpected last beat in attempt to throw off the dancers.

 

Women’s Fancy Shawl

Elaborately beaded capes (or yokes), moccasins and leggings are worn with appliquéd shawls that have long fringed around the shawl. These colorful outfits are danced in spirited twirling motions of this exuberant and graceful dance.

It has been said that women were dancing in men's fancy dance regalia before the fancy shawl existed, until it was decided that they should have their own dance. Fancy dance regalia display that while preserving the basic designs of our history, new materials such as sequins, ribbon, and fabric can be merged with beadwork, and feathers resulting in regalia that expresses unique Native identity. The fancy dance itself is a combination of intricate footwork in response to the beat and tone of the music form the drum and singers.

 

Women’s Jingle Dress Dance

There are many teachings surrounding the origin of the Jingle Dress Dance. The dance is known to have been a gift from the Creator to the Ojibway people for the purpose of healing – and has spread among other tribes. The jingle dress features seven rows of jingle cones. The cones are now made of various metal materials. Some dresses use other noise making materials, such as bones or deer hooves. Jingle dresses are often decorated with ribbon, and appliqué. Matching beadwork - leggings, moccasins, and hair ornaments – are paired with eagle feathers and plumes that are worn in the hair. Dancers carry a fan that is raised during the honor beats of the song.

 

Women’s Traditional Dance

The women’s traditional dance is a slow or non-moving bouncing step that involves rhythmically dipping and swaying to the beat of the drum. Traditional dresses of buckskin (or other materials) are often decorated with beading, quillwork, bone, or shells. The colors for this dance tend to be more reserved than in other regalia. Heavy breastplates, chokers, medallions, purses, buckskin moccasins, and leggings made of bone or beads are the necessary pieces of the outfit.


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