An Overview Of Native American Dances

Native American dances have long been an important part of their culture. They utilized dance as both a form of recreation and ritual. Some dances were even performed to honor others during certain ceremonies. Others may have been performed in hopes of blessing the surrounding land for a good harvest or upcoming hunt. The role that dancing played within the lives of Native Americans can not go understated. In effort to pay tribute some of the most well known Native American dances, several examples will be detailed below:

1 – The Sun Dance

The sun dance was performed by Upper Plains tribes, mostly within the area surrounding the Rocky Mountains A ceremonial form of dance, this was performed at the summer solstice, when the season changes from spring to summer. The preparations for the ceremony were taken very seriously, and they often began up to a year in advance. Each tribe had their own variation, but the principle was generally the same; a prayer for healing and the harmonization of body and spirit. In some cases, personal sacrifices would be made. Fasting or having certain areas of the skin pierced were not uncommon aspects of the ritual.

2 – The War Dance

Numerous tribes performed a war dance in order to help prepare them for an oncoming attack. They were very spiritual in nature, with the intent to help ensure success for the tribe in battle. Emotions ran high, helping everyone involved feel a sense of togetherness that would bolster their resolve and cement all of the beliefs that they intended to fight for. Typical war dances included prayer, the handling of sacred artifacts, incense burning, pipe passing, and even sitting within sweat lodges. Instrumentation from drums, whistles, and rattles was also often provided to create the appropriate mood.

3 – The Fancy Dance

The Fancy Dance was first practiced by the Ponca tribe sometime between the 1920s and 30s. It was largely a celebration of culture and religion. In this time period, the United States government had outlawed Native American dances. The aforementioned Fancy Dances were held in secret as an act of defiance and cultural preservation alike. They took several cues from the War Dance described above, and they were ultimately allowed to be performed during special reservation visits. Dances of this nature are still performed at special events to this day. 

4 – The Gourd Dance

Practiced by the Kiowa tribe, the Gourd Dance was held in honor of an old legend that tells the story of a dancing red wolf. Each dance is accompanied by a howl at the end to pay tribute. It was generally only performed by men within a Pow-wow, though women were free to join along behind them. 

5 – The Ghost Dance

Starting in the 1880s, the Ghost Dance was created when Indian reservation conditions were especially poor. Performing this dance gave the natives hope.  Originally established by Wovoka, a Paiute Indian claiming to be the messiah, the dance itself is obviously steeped in both spirituality and mysticism.

Native American Dances Provide Historical and Cultural Continuity in Present Times

Dancing has held a significant place in American Indian culture as both an amusement and as a solemn ritual. Historically, they’ve played an important role in the practice of their religions, and have been held to obtain the success of harvests and hunts, to show gratitude, and as part of other celebrations. Today, dance continues to be an important part of their culture, and dances are often a reflection of tribal identity. Here are four examples of Native American dances, and the historical meanings attached to them.

The Sun Dance was practiced by several different tribes, and was considered by the Plains Indians to be among the most important ceremonial dances they held. It symbolized the continuity of life throughout eternity, and also our dependency on and connection to nature. They were held yearly at the time of the summer solstice, and would last for up to eight days, continuing from sunrise until sunset.

The Stomp Dance is a traditional Chickasaw tribal dance to obtain special favors from the gods. This is a very familiar dance to many of us, as it has often been depicted in movies. The leader would begin with a song, then head toward the ceremonial fire with a rattle or shell shaker in hand, followed by the others wearing ankle rattles. The leader would call out to the Creator, and the men would respond as if speaking for the Creator. It is believed that whatever was requested would be granted within four days. 

The Ghost Dance symbolized the rebirth of Earth, and the spiritual gift of an exalted state of bliss for Earth’s caregivers. It gives closure and courage to those that have lost loved ones. There was very little structure to the dance, which makes this dance unusual. All that was required was for participants to dance in a way of their choosing, that could awaken their ancestors so they could communicate with them. This is dance is associated with tragic history, as it was the dance that was being done when American soldiers attacked them during the Battle of Wounded Knee. 

The Grass Dance is one of the oldest Native American dances that is known today. The dance symbolized the tribe’s victory over their enemies. It was also often used to flatten grass in an area in order to prepare the location for a tribal ceremony. Participants would be adorned with headdresses, ribbons, and fringes in order to emphasize the natural movement of grass as it’s blown in the wind, which they sought to imitate.

Native Americans continue the tradition of using these and other dances to connect with each other and to honor the beloved traditions of their people. Dance continues to be an important aspect of their society, and it serves as a vehicle for preserving their fascinating and diverse cultures. It is a mechanism for keeping their history alive, in a nation that is far removed from where they came from.