Pow wow dancing: meaning of some of the dances

Pow wow dancing: meaning of some of the dances

Hello all!

As I have had some requests through my site’s Facebook page, I thought I would write about Native American Pow wow dancing and the meaning of some dances. If you follow me on Facebook, then you know how much I love Pow wows! The dancing, the regalia, the music. I attend as many as I can. The music is music from the soul, it brings tears to my eyes at times or gives me chills. I listen to it in my car, at home, before I go to bed. I was not kidding when I said that I love Pow wows! πŸ™‚ So here we go, all about Pow wows!

pow wow panorama

Pow wow dancing

So as I said, I have covered the concept of Pow wows, what they are about and include in a different post. You can read it here. In a Pow wow, dancers come in in what is called The Grand Entry. If you go on my FB page, you can see videos of Grand Entries of some Pow wows I have attended (under videos). The Grand Entry begins with the head woman and man dancers followed byΒ  Elders or guests and then men dancers followed by the women. Most dancers will be dancing (but not extremely as they need to keep their energy for the competitions!). There is nothing like seeing all the dancers on the floor at the same time. It is jaw dropping! Typically, in a one day Pow wow, there will be 2 Grand Entries, one at the beginning and one right after dinner time.

Grand Entry

The Grand Entry

After the Grand Entry, you might then see a dance of the hosting tribe or nation. Representing their culture. Then, it is dancing time!! From my own experience, types of dances are called and dancers dancing that particular dance go on to compete. You will have women’s dances, men’s dances, youth’s dances, tiny tots (7 years old and below) as well as couple’s dances (typically one in which women select a partner and one in which men select a partner). So today, let’s cover some of those dances (along with pictures) to see what their meaning is. As to the untrained eye they might all look alike. But in reality, they all have their particularities. So here we go!

Men’s traditional

The men’s traditional dance is one of the oldest dances. It is often “animal” in nature. Meaning that the dance honors the different animals the Creator put on Earth and represents movements of the hunter, gatherer. Action oriented movements such as battling an enemy or hunting a game. There is no prescribed regalia but dancers will often wear regalia of their own creation. You will however see regalia with meaning for our ancestors. For example, men will wear breast plates made of bones or shells to protect against arrows, or a neck choker to protect against knives or have a tomahawk or a shield decorated with symbols associated with their tribe. Oftentimes, you will then see dancers low to the ground as though they are hunting. Moreover, some of them will wear a plate or bustle made of eagle feathers (it is quite impressive), the eagle being a sacred bird within the native culture. The eagle flies to the sky to bring our prayers to the Creator. The Eagle is the connection to the Creator. Eagle feathers should also always be given to you. Mine was given to me by an Elder. Below you will see the bustles I am referring to.

Men's traditional

Men’s traditional

Women’s traditional

On to the women’s traditional! That particular dance is so graceful. I have seen it many times and I never get tired of it (as well as the jingle dress dancing). The women’s traditional dance is a very rhythmic dance, in which women basically repeat the same movements over and over again. It does not look like much to some but it is an excellent exercise for your calves! Women typically dance in a line or circle, side by side. They move their feet up and down close to the ground, in time with the drum. Movements are very precised. Women will also carry a folded shawl draped over one arm and a feather fan in their other hand (see picture below). They will raise their fan when they hear the “honor beats” (in other words the louder bangs on the drum) to honor the drum and their male relatives. Traditionally, they will also carry a knife case and an awl on their belt. And what to say about their dresses! Beautiful colors, beading often made by the dancer, representing their different tribes. Colors, patterns and flowers will vary according to the tribe.

women's traditional

Women’s traditional. Courtesy of powwows.com

Men’s grass dance

Another one of my favorite (ok every single dance is my favorite….)! Multiple meanings or stories are associated with the grass dance. One of those is that men would dance in such manner to flatten the grass on a new camp or meeting site. They would dance on the site. In certain Pow wows, grass dancers are asked to “clear the floor” before dances begin, as they would for a new camp site. They bring good energy to the floor for the dancers. Some will also say that the grass dance was created by the Creator to represent balance in life and the need for it (movements are then made on both sides of the dancer). Some movements will be similar to the men’s traditional dance, such as hunting like movements or battling with an enemy movements. However, one of the most recognizable movement is one in which the dancer dances as though one of his legs is caught and unable to move. The dancer then dances with his leg in the “held” position (as though they are dancing around their leg). As for the regalia, well it consists of a base attire to which is attached ribbons of fabric, representing the grass (often very colorful) The head dress is comprised of two feathers that twirl or rock as the dancer dances. Finally, as with every dance, the dancers follow the beat of the drum and in the grass dance, end the dance with both feet on the ground on the last beat.

grass dancer

Grass dancer

Men’s fancy

The men’s fancy dance often referred to simply as the men’s fancy is a treat to see! Be prepared for a show and a display from the men πŸ™‚ It is a more modern dance and it is also an energetic one! They give it their all πŸ™‚ A fancy dancer will then need stamina and agility as he will be jumping and twirling. The colors are bright, the regalia is elaborate. Think of peacocks dancing. Dancers often have two bustles of colorful feathers, ribbons, horse hair as well as bright head and arm bands. You really cannot miss a men’s fancy regalia, you see them from a mile away! The brighter the colors the better. A head dress of 2 eagle feathers (just like in the grass dance) is worn and you will see the dancers constantly moving their head as the feathers are supposed to be constantly moving throughout the song. And dancers will often carry a decorated coup stick. What is that you ask? Our ancestors carried a stick in battles. They would touch their enemies with their stick (called counting coups) without killing them. It was considered a significant sign of bravery. Finally, I have also seen dancers carry a decorated mirror which they will use during the dance.

Men's fancy

Men’s fancy

Women’s shawl dance

The women’s shawl dance can also be called the women’s fancy. In some ways it is the female version of the men’s fancy. It is a more modern dance as well and women used to wear either a blanket or a shawl over their head (it used to be called the blanket dance). It is a very athletic dance which involves quick steps and lots of twirling. Women will use their shawl to accentuate the twirling, the shawl becoming an extension of their arms. At the end of the shawl there will often be ribbons to add to the regalia, the ribbons flying in the air as the woman twirls and kicks. If you have never seen the women’s fancy you are missing out! It seems to be one hell of a good cardio exercise as well! It is just a time for women to shine, to give it their all. And it is absolutely breathtaking. Just see the picture below.

Woman shawl dancer

Woman shawl dancer

So there you have it, 5 Pow wow dances for you! Any of you ever been to a Pow wow? Have you ever seen any of those dances live? Any other dances you would like to learn about? Comment below and I will answer πŸ™‚

2007 Pow wow

2007 Powwow;
Washington, DC.

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32 thoughts on “Pow wow dancing: meaning of some of the dances

  1. Shannon

    This post brought me back to my childhood. There were Traditional Native dance lessons in a small town neighboring mine. We would always go watch them dance. It’s really cool to now learn the history behind the dances. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      thanks so much for visiting Shannon! Glad it brought back good memories. I never get tired of pow wow dancing. The dancing and the music often brings a tear to my eyes and a smile to my face

      Reply
  2. Krysten

    great images and explanations in this post. I have a few relatives are native american and they have some of the costumes which are so beautiful. It is so important to showcase this culture and the harmony with earth they promote. Great reading!

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      thanks Krysten! Dancing and Pow wow music are for sure a way to pass along the traditions as well as a way to reconnect with all our relations, with Mother Earth and the Creator. They are also very spiritual events or I would even say ceremonies. The “costumes” are called regalia. They are the traditional dress, what our ancestors wore and what today’s generations wear to showcase their culture and pride

      Reply
  3. Ginny Rice

    Thank you so much for clarification about the dances. All the dances you described were ones I have seen at Pow Wows. It was wonderful to read about the different dances and RECOGNIZE them in my mind. Pow Wows can be a very spiritual experience. I look forward to my next one. Thank you again!

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      thanks Ginny! Yes once you have seen them and you see the description and their meaning it gets easier to recognize them. They truly have their particularities. I absolutely love Pow wows! I cannot say it enough πŸ™‚

      Reply
  4. viviane

    Emily I really enjoy your site and learning more about native way . I had the pleasure of attending a pow wow once and hope sincerely there will be other opportunities. Thank you for sharing the meaning of the dances. I observed at the pow wow fine dancing; joy of the dancers in expressing their culture freely. I wanted to join in it felt so natural! However felt so happy to simply be there.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      thanks Viviane!
      I know what you mean, the dancing feels so natural! And the joy of the dancers and everyone there is contagious!

      Reply
  5. Jeffrey Spencer

    Awesome website. Native American’s are very spiritual people. Their dances are very interesting and unique. I have always been fascinated with the native American culture. The clothes worn during their dances are so colorful and neat. Thanks for sharing, Jeffrey

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      thanks Jeffrey!
      I just love the dances and the music. Pow wows are such great events. it’s pretty hard to be in a bad mood if you are at a Pow wow. The traditions strong and alive!

      Reply
  6. Aikaterini Markakis

    Hello Emily,
    This is a very informative post. I never attended a pow wow and didn’t know what it really is until I read this but it’s so interesting and I would certainly love to take some traditional Native dancing lessons if there are any offered in my area. What makes them even more fascinating of course is the traditional clothes. So much color, it makes me happy! Thank you for sharing with us Emily. Always a pleasure to learn more on the amazing tradition of Native Americans!

    Reply
  7. Kinya

    What a beautiful and informative article. I simply love everything I’m learning about Native American culture on your website. The pictures are very nice. I love all the costumes and colors. Reading about the dances made me imagine how much time and energy goes into each one. That’s a lot of hard work, but the dancers must be extremely passionate.

    I have never been to a Pow Wow, but now I want to go to one. It’s nothing like what they portray on TV, but then again, when has TV ever accurately portrayed any minority?

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Thank you Kinya!
      I absolutely recommend attending a Pow wow πŸ™‚ They are the best. The atmosphere, the music, the dancing. You cannot help but smile when you are there :)And absolutely right about the misrepresentation of minorities on TV

      Reply
  8. taher syed

    Hi. I find Pow wow very fascinating. It is walking into a culture that you are new to and attending cultural events is perhaps a great thing because you get to learn more about different celebrations and their background. I am Indian too but not Native. lol

    Reply
  9. Esteban

    I’ve always had a certain connection to native americans for some reason. Maybe it is because some of the native inhabitants of Brazil have the same roots and I’m partly Brazilian.
    Nevertheless I found this very enjoyable to read and there’s so much to learn from the world let alone natural healing.
    I’ve actually seen one of these dances ages ago but I don’t remember where anymore.
    I hope to read more of your blog! Well done.

    Esteban

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Esteban
      thanks for stopping by! For sure some parts of South America have similar culture and traditions than those of native Americans. I am sure there were also Indigenous people of the land in Brazil whose traditions are still alive today (I would hope). I can understand the connection with the land and people πŸ™‚

      Reply
  10. Meina

    I’ve seen some pow wow dances few years ago on TV. I think I’ve seen it on The Amazing Race if i’m not mistaken. The first thing that came to my head was the similarities between some pow wow dances (more of the footsteps) to what the Malays called “Ngajat Iban dance”. There’s also the Sabah’s version. Maybe it was just me =)

    I’m starting to like the pow wow dance. It looks fun and addictive. A great article indeed!

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Meina
      thanks for visiting! So glad to hear that you are now enjoying pow wows! You are right there are some resemblances between the 2 dances, in terms of having meaningful movements. But it does seem to me that Pow wow dancing is faster and more active.

      Reply
  11. Markus

    Wow! Emily, Pow Wow Dancing brings back a lot of memories for me.
    As I grew up in Arizona and every other year we would all go to the Pow Wows in Northern Arizona.
    And your very right, these are very colorful and meaningful events to behold.

    Whether its the Mens Traditional or the Women’s Shawl Dance they are exciting to watch.
    My favorite though not a dance, is the Grand Entry. Just something about it that sets the tone, for me anyway.

    The last Pow Wow I attended was a while ago and I had the pleasure of watching the Hopi Snake Dance and The Navajo Rain Dance. And although some think The Snake Dance of the Hopi, is the same as the Navajos Rain Dance in fact they are not.

    This Hopi dance is done by members from the snake, and Antelope clans from all three mesa’s of the Hopi Land.
    They believe the snakes represent their brothers who will take messages for them to the rain god’s who live in the underworld. But thats all it has in common with the Navajo Rain Dance.

    The Maya have an ancient dance called the Snake Dance. I would like to see that some day and see what it has in common with the others if any!

    Do you think there is a Dance that is common amongst all the tribes either here in North America or maybe even world wide? Just a thought πŸ™‚

    Great information on Pow wow Dancing look forward to more.

    Thanks

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Markus!
      you are so lucky to have witnessed those dances! The Hopi people are a fascinating tribe to me. A bit unique in their own ways. Their dances certainly stand out. I absolutely love the Grand Entry. I attended a big Pow wow a few weeks ago with hundreds of dancers. I was taken aback with the sight of all of them on the floor. I think I literally stopped breathing! I am not sure if there is a common dance across all tribes in North America. However, I would say that jingle dress dance could be one

      Reply
  12. Markus

    Hey Emily,

    Well thank you I feel that way to. It was just part of growing up in Arizona.
    You could be right, but right off the top of my head I’m thinking maybe “The MΓΌtrΓΌm Purun, or Guest Dance”.
    The women of the Mapuche people, who live in the west costal valleys of Chile’s AraucanΓ­a Region do this dance. I’m not sure if its one in the same, I guess that would be based on the ceremonial and ritual beliefs.

    My bet would be a creation dance of sorts. As most would have and still do, put a great importance on the sky gods and the creation of all. I’ll let this thought go cuz I will get way out there on you πŸ™‚

    I do know that the traditions of the indian culture have with stood the sands of time, and have remained the same for hundreds if not thousands of years. So it wouldn’t surprise me if there is more than one dance that is the same across the board.

    Sounds like an undertaking that you could do at some point. If anyone could I feel you could
    Thanks for your quick reply and I do look for more soon.

    Thanks

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      that does sound like an idea for a new post! but a creation dance or a guest dance does seem like a good option πŸ™‚

      Reply
  13. Demi

    I was not aware that so many dance forms are there. You did a great job explaining each form and what they mean. I really enjoyed it!

    Reply
  14. jason

    Hi Emily
    This is such a brilliant article. I’ve always been fascinated by this, not sure why, but there is definitely a deeply embedded cultural or spiritual link. Thank you so much for this website

    Jason

    Reply
  15. CherylK

    This is so fascinating, Emily. I enjoyed the entire article. I’ve learned that I have a bit of Native American blood in me, as well, but even before I knew that, I had such warm feelings for the culture.

    I’m definitely bookmarking your site, Emily. It’s just beautiful.

    Reply
  16. Lee Ann Mason

    I was hoping you could explain to me what I will describe as the washboard actions during the women’s dance. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Ann
      I am not sure of what you are describing. Are you talking about when women raise their feather fans in the air in a sweeping motion? Or are you talking about some foot work?

      Reply

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