Dancing is a very important element of Native American culture. It has a long history and has experienced significant changes depending on the social, political and economic status of the indigenous tribes. This paper will analyze the typical features of dancing of Native Americans, its role in their culture and the changes that it underwent due to a number of different factors. The essay will also explore how Native American dancing contributes to contemporary cultures of the United States.
The dancing culture of the indigenous Indian tribes is a very complex and multidimensional notion that has not been studied well enough. There is little information about the dancing practices of American Indians before the first contacts with the Europeans or at the first stages of their coexistence on the continent. There were some observations of missionaries, anthropologists, but the information is very scarce. More scientific studies began to appear at the end of the nineteenth century, but, in fact, the primary focus of those researches was the dances that had already greatly suffered from the impact of the Christian culture of the Europeans. Only the present-day studies have devoted enough attention to the Native American dance as an expressive art. They are aimed at learning and analyzing the basic movements, as well as presenting them in the context of dance notation together with the musical accompaniment. In general, the dancing practices are quite elaborate. “Its mood and manner are highly expressive of a peculiar, native genius” (Evans & Evans, 2003, p. 12). Dances were usually organized in a large structure or in an open field, mainly around the fire. Movements of the participants reflected the aim of the dance – prayer, celebration of victory, gratitude to the ancestors and others. In addition, “the rhythms are diverse, complicated and marked by frequent change” Evans & Evans, 2003, p. 12). At the end of the eighteenth century, Indians began to pay more attention to the so-called dancing associations. There were several semi-religious festivals or ceremonies in which a great number of Indians took part. One of the best known examples of the Plains Indians was the Grass Dance, which was also practiced by Pawnee, Dakota, Gros Ventre and other tribes.
The Grass Dance is a good example of the changes that American tribal dances underwent and the ways it is practiced in the contemporary culture. It is one of the oldest known Native American dances (Axtmann, 2014). The first tribes to perform it were likely to be the Omaha-Ponca and the Dakota Sioux, but later, due to the extensive contact of these tribes with their neighbors, this dance became popular almost all over the central and southern parts of the United States. This dance has its own legend of creation. The legend has it that this dance was seen by a handicapped boy from the Plains in a trance. He wanted to dance very much, but he could not, and when he had a vision of this dance, he was cured and was able to use his legs to show this dance to the members of his tribe (Axtmann, 2014). Originally, this dance was performed only by men, but now, the contemporary culture and social norms allowed women to take part in the Grass Dance on equal terms with men. It also becomes intertribal, and, in contrast to its original form, the blessings are given not only to the dancers, but to the spectators as well. Another example of the changes introduced by the contemporary culture is the gourd dance that was almost completely forgotten by the 1930s, but nowadays it is practiced again, and some communities even accept non-Native Americans to take part in it. The technologies also changed, and now the rattles used during this dance are not made of a gourd. Usually, people use a tin filled with beads on a beaded handle.
While speaking about Native American dancing, it is important to remember that the dancing practices varied greatly depending on the geography, history and other characteristic features of the tribe. Although there are some similarities between dancing practices of different tribes, especially the ones that are located not far one from another, in general, the dancing styles are quite diverse.
Most famous tribal dance traditions are based on beliefs that everything in the world, both animate and inanimate, have souls. Therefore, dance styles of different tribes were closely connected with the nature that surrounded them and their routine daily activities. For instance, the Inuit conducted complex outdoor ceremonies for their hunters – whale catchers. Preliminaries included a mime of successful catch with a woman playing a role of the whale. Songs were sung during the departure, sighting a whale, chase and before spear throw, all of them being a part of a complex ritual and having a great sacral meaning. Later, the whole tribe gathered in a circle of the huge whale bones where collective fisting, games, singing, dancing and shamanic rituals took place. The similar practice could be observed in other tribes. “Dancing helps White Mountain Apache people perceive the Creator’s presence and healing power in their lives and to keep that perception alive. It is an affirmation of their cultural values” (Heth, 2002, p. 80). Under different natural conditions, tribes of Northeast and Southeast Indians developed different rites devoted to different aspects of their environment. Whereas Northeast Indians’ life was closely associated with hunting and they developed rites connected with the animal world and war, Southeast Indians associated themselves with the earth, plants and medicine. Alongside the animalistic traditions, events crucial to the society in general and each individual in particular led to formation of different rites and ceremonies. The dream dance ritual was associated with boys’ puberty (Axtmann, 2014). There were also circle dances for girls’ puberty rites; however, they were in most cases less elaborate. Another dance practice, votive Sun Dance ceremony, was usually held in days of the summer solstice and characterized by abstain from food and drink, painting bodies in symbolic colors and dancing with saluting to the sun.
Nowadays, it is especially important to preserve this variety of regional dances. The high level of globalization makes the distinctive American Indian culture much weaker than earlier and keeping the art of native dance alive is one of the factors that may contribute to the process of protecting cultural and ethnic diversity in the United States.
The comparison of Native American dance practices to the Western style dancing reveals a large number of differences between these two cultural notions. First of all, it is the distinction between the performer and the spectator that is crucial to the Western culture, especially in case of stage dancing, such as ballet, and other forms typical of the European culture and later accepted by the white population of America. In addition, Native American dancing in most cases has a very distinctive religious and spiritual component that is preserved only in Western folk dances. However, nowadays, even European folk dances are performed without special attention to their spiritual background. In contrast, Native American dance, excluding some touristic performances, still preserves these features.
All things considered, Native American dancing is an integral part of the indigenous tribal culture. These dances are often religious in their nature, but they are also supposed to serve a variety of different functions, such as ensuring success in hunting, war, etc. However, the contemporary culture had influenced the traditional dancing practices of the Native Americans, and nowadays, these dances are more democratic in terms of participants, venues and occasions.