Pow Wow Dancers

Dances have always been a very important part of the life of the American Indian. Most dances seen at Pow Wows today are social dances which might have had different meanings in earlier days. Although dance styles and content have changed, their meaning and importance have not.

Male Traditional

The outfits are an older style of dress. Men may wear a smaller style of feather bustle or bustle where the feathers hang down in the back. The beadwork is most commonly floral in the Great Lakes region, featuring tribally specific stylized versions of art and movement. Many people familiar with Pow Wows can identify the Nation and area a person is from just by looking at the outfit. 

First and foremost – dancers in this category are aiming to tell you a story. Typically it is one of a hunt, a battle, or a certain victory. Dancers utilize different movements to demonstrate the story they are telling you; crouching, tracking, aiming, dashing about and so on. Many dancers are taught to dance toward the center of the circle and tap once on the pole or shout out during this style. This is done to represent victory over an enemy or victory in the hunt they are telling you about. One stellar Men’s Traditional second song is called the Duck and Dive. Some say this style of dance came about during the First World War. Dancers listen very carefully for slow hard drumbeats bend downward in time as if to dodge artillery fire.

Male dancer wearing traditional grab during a Pow Wow
Native male wearing grass dancer regalia dancing at a Pow Wow

Men's Grass Dance

This is considered by many to be a traditional style of dance. The dance look and style comes to us from the plains. Men will usually wear an outfit with long fringes made of yarn, leather, ribbons or some sort of fiber. The dancer usually does not have a feather bustle, and the smooth movements of the dance can either be to tell a story, to mimic the movements of tall grass in the wind, or to interpret a dancer's vision of what a particular song is saying to them.

Grass dancing was birthed from young men of the plains nations stomping down tall prairie grasses to prepare the site of a new village or site for ceremonies. Today’s Grass Dancers try to dance as smooth as possible as if they are those long prairie grasses blowing in the wind. For that kind of controlled movement, these Grass Dancers must be fit and strong. This sometimes results in some fantastic movements leaving 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 motions they do on one foot, they must do with the other foot. It is that intentional act of balanced footwork that makes the Grass Dance so spectacular to watch.

Men's Fancy Dance

Two often time colorful bustles are worn on the back for this dance and can be divided into two categories, Southern and Northern. These dancers are athletes, with their dance demanding a high level of knowledge, songs, movements, and stamina. The dance is one of the most recent additions to dancing, and most often compared to the way “Rock and Roll” revolutionized the sight and sound of dancing.  This is the kind of Pow Wow dancing that spectators love. It is fast and furious. Dancers must be in top physical condition to execute the tricky footwork and acrobatic movements that make this style so exciting to watch. It’s not uncommon to see Fancy Feather dancers do cartwheels, backflips and splits in competitive dancing.  The key to being a champion Men’s Fancy dancer is keeping on the beat while making fringe and feather bustles shaking and swaying all the while twirling handheld spinners.

This dance is one of the more recent additions to Pow Wow traditions. It is believed to have originated from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows where young men would dance hard and fast to impress the crowds. Fancy Dancers are usually called on to perform Sneak-Up or Trick Songs. These extremely fast songs ruffle the drumbeat while dancers twirl about, followed by fast sections with sudden stops. It is always exciting to see the dancers interpret what the drum is doing and to see them all stay in time with the beat and stop on time. You definitely don’t want to miss this category!

Man dancing wearing fancy regalia at a Pow Wow
A woman wearing a traditional native outfit at a Pow Wow

Women's Traditional Dance

Many of the designs in this category of dancer are tribally specific, and while many of the patterns used are inherited, many times great creativity is given to produce moving works of art on the regalia. Moccasins usually reflect the specific tribal heritage of a dancer, as well as the inspired beadwork and ribbon work. These women will usually dance in place or appear to “walk” to the timing of a song.

It looks easy enough, but when wearing regalia upwards of 40 lbs, the deep knee bends of a Women’s Traditional Dancer require a lot of leg strength, good balance, and breath control. Scrubbing is a stationary dance style. Dancers bounce in place along in time with the drum turning ever so slightly. Some say scrubbing is the original women’s style of Pow Wow dance. When scrubbing the dancers are trying to keep those fringe tips snapping just right. Walking style is when the dancers travel around the circle in deep knee bends, taking small steps forward. Dancers who use the walking style want to look smooth, controlled and elegant as their fringe sways in time to the drum. They sometimes recognize the strong beats of the drum, called honor beats, by either leaning forward or lifting their fan in the air – depending on what nation they come from.

Women's Jingle Dance

Women that dance in this mode are easily distinguishable from the other dancers by the way their dresses are made. Spectators can see the dance jingles, or rolled metal cones that are sewn onto the dress. The cones move against each other making a unique sound. The dress originates from the Ojibwa people and has spiritual significance and origin. Many tribes have adopted the general ideas of the dress and incorporated their own interpretations into the patterns.

This healing dance comes from the Anishinabek people of Whitefish Bay where a young girl was gravely ill. One of the men received a dream where he saw the dresses, songs, and dances that needed to be done for her. Women in the community made the dresses, drummers learned the song and some women were shown the steps to carry out what was given in the dream. As the dancers went around this young girl she started to recover and by the end of the night, she was healed and up dancing with the women.

Today there are two kinds of competitive Jingle Dances; contemporary and old style. Contemporary dancers use complex but gentle footwork making the dance look effortless. They wear soft eagle plumes in their hair and raise eagle tail fans during honor beats to ‘lift up’ the prayers of the people. Old style jingle dancers don’t wear eagle feathers or sparkly materials to pay respect to the original intention of the dance. They are taught to always keep one foot touching the ground to show our connection to the earth and lift their hands during honor beats to raise the prayers of the people.

A woman wearing a jingle dress dancing at a Pow Wow
A woman wearing a shawl dancing at a Pow Wow

Women's Shawl Dance

Otherwise known by other names such as “Graceful Shawl” or “Shawl Dance”, this is another recent addition to the Pow Wow scene. The movements are very athletic and songs can be just as fast as the men’s fancy dance. Many people say that the movements are to reflect the beating wings of birds or even the butterfly. The Shawl is generally worn over the shoulders and has patterns that can be simple to complex, showing amazing artwork by accomplished artisans. Beadwork in the outfits is usually matching and reflects on the hours of work gone into creating a unique look for each dancer.

Like Jingle, there are Contemporary and Old Style Fancy Shawl dancers. Contemporary shawl dancers are spinning, kicking, twirling, leaping and traveling as fast and as furious as the men’s fancy dancers, but light on their feet. The goal is to look as if you are floating about the dance arena and barely ever touch the ground. Old style dancers are still quick on their feet, but there is usually less spinning involved. The focus is to marry intricate footwork with smooth shawling to make for a seamless performance.

Page last modified January 3, 2020