Photo Credit: Kyle Fowler Photography
The hoop dance represents everything in life, and the hoops themselves represent the challenges in our life, thus the dance can be used as lesson as well for any situation in life. As a hoop dancer the lessons of the dance are always unfolding in my life in different ways, often this depends on why and where I am performing, who I am teaching, etc. This is one of the reasons I began this blog in the first place. My hoop dance teacher shared that the shapes a dancer makes are manifested to the audience in ways they need to see them, so each time you watch the hoop dance a new understanding may emerge. After a school performance a teacher asked if her students could say what shapes they saw, and if I could tell them whether they were right or wrong. I shared that it is up to the spectator to decide what they saw, it is the 'manitous' (spiritual beings) who present themselves to people in certain ways. This is a reflection of the limited ways society sometimes views the world around us - such as being black and white, right or wrong, and good or bad. The hoops on the other hand represent continuity- constant movement and constant change. Because the hoop dance creates different understandings the more it is performed and viewed, it becomes a symbol of infinite wisdom, and this is evident in the shape of the hoop itself, a shape with no beginning and no end...
Photo Credit: Kyle Fowler Photography
In March 2018 I celebrated ten years of sobriety. A decade of living drug and alcohol free as an adult. This decision was a direct result of learning to hoop dance. As I started on this journey of dance and culture I was told that if I participated in my culture I was representing my culture to others, I would be a role model. I believe that all those who practice their culture, dance, song, ceremony, arts and storytelling are all powerful role models. When you share your culture you are an advocate for your people. Others look towards you as a conduit for connecting to culture.
In the story of the hoop dance, because it is a healing dance, it is a great responsibility to become a hoop dancer. To represent the circle of life, you are representing life and all that it means to grow, thrive, and live in wellness. In the original ceremony of the hoop dance, the hoop dancer dances with the hoop and returns it to the person seeking healing as a message that they are responsible for their own healing. Thus, the hoop dancer, who cares for their own hoops, is responsible for their own continual healing. This includes spiritual, physical, emotional and mental well-being, as the symbol of the hoop encompasses the four directions and teachings of the Medicine Wheel. Indeed, one of the hoop dance teachings is that how many hoops you can handle, reflects how you handle the different challenges within your life. For those who strive to be culturally grounded and focused artists our practice reaches far beyond the stage, screen, or canvas into everyday life, and everyday practices of self-care, taking care of our body, listening to our emotions, monitoring our thoughts, our relationships, and wellness.
When you are an artist, when you share your culture, when you are a role model it is a great responsibility. To show the sacredness of an ancient culture you must also practice the the teachings. When we choose to practice these teachings we are showing respect to our culture and to our teachers. To respect ourselves is to also respect the culture we carry, our ancestors who carried it in the past, and the future ancestors who will carry it forward long after we are gone.
What the past ten years have taught me is that healing is not a life-long journey, but life is a healing journey. We are all healing from something, we are all imperfect and this is part of the circle of life.
Photo Credit: Eugene Tapahe
I distinctly remember the university course I took, where it was stated that in the social hierarchy Native women are at the very bottom, below every other race and gender. This summer, this event, helped to change that...
Following my journey to the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest, a male dominated title, I wrote a blog to honor the role of women and advocate for balance and equality in what society values as important, valid and praise-worthy. My routine for that event was created to honor the strength and gifts of women. I titled that blog "Women in the Circle" which you can read here.
This call for gender balance was shared by others. This August a call was made to all Women Hoop Dancers to participate in the first and only event of its kind at the Intermountain All-Woman Hoop Dance Contest in Salt Lake City, Utah. Organized by Saanii Atsitty and hosted by This is the Place Heritage Park.
For myself, this was highly anticipated event. I began asking questions and getting to know Saanii, which was a great relief, and made all the difference for me wanting to attend.
Once I read the official rules for the event I was even more excited. Instead of using "showmanship" as one of the judging criteria, they used Grace/ Elegance. I was literally in shock and awe. I was floored by how changing one word can change the whole game. I felt for the first time that my style and skills were reflected in the contest rules!
According to Dictionary.com the Word Origin and History for showmanship (1859) comes form the word showman "one who presents shows". Breaking that word down, "show" means an exhibit, display, entertainment, or spectacle; and "man" adult male person, obviously; the ending "-ship" denoting skill. Taken all together this translates to 'display of adult male skill'. This does not reflect my style as a female hoop dancer. Also, the word 'show' does not reflect my practice as a hoop dancer, for me it is more than a show, I also embrace the story and teachings behind the dance. One example is being drug and alcohol free for almost ten years.
At the Intermountain All-Woman Hoop Dance Contest the words used as judging criteria were Grace, meaning "elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action" and Elegance as refinement. This was definitely more true to who I am as a female hoop dancer, who I always have been, and who I always will be, as an Indigenous woman. Of course, not saying all women feel this way, or would agree, or should be graceful and elegant, this is just my personal feeling. Women can be whatever they want and should not been ashamed of who they are naturally.
This one word started to make me think of how unfair this would make the contest for a male hoop dancer, how would they feel having to be graceful and elegant? How awkward would they feel trying to show grace and elegance? This got me thinking of the larger society, and how many more rules and words out there that favor male characteristics?
I feel that the world is changing, returning to balance, supported by seemingly small acts by courageous women. I feel that a single word, broken down like this can create change in how we see the world, how we define ourselves and others. One word can change the rules, change the game, and change how we see success.
Hiy hiy/ Thank you, Saanii Atsitty, and all the committee of the Intermountain All-Woman Hoop Dance Contest, for giving me a sense of pride and hope, as an Indigenous woman and as a hoop dancer. I am honored to have the privilege of being the first adult woman champion at this event!
Miwasin Iskwewak Kisikaw!- Happy Women's Day! As many of you probably know today is International Women's Day! A day to recognize and celebrate the life-givers, home makers, culture carriers, water protectors, knowledge holders, ceremony keepers, earth warriors! And, so much more!
My recent hoop dance at the Heard Museum 'World Championship Hoop Dance Contest' in Pheonix, Arizona was created to represent myself, as a women, who holds many of the roles mentioned above, as well as, to honor the many roles of women that go unnoticed and are undervalued in our society today.
When we are in ceremony the circle is often divided into a women's side and a men's side, representing balance, equality, and unity of male and female gender roles.
The hoop dance has historically been a male dominated dance, which is a critique some have towards the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest. Although, I have never heard teachings that explicitly say only men are allowed to hoop dance. I do not believe that women need a separate category at the World Championships. What I do wish to see is that women are valued, respected, and honored for what they bring to the circle. I think it is important to retain that balance, equality, and unity of different gender roles which had made our ancestors such healthy and strong people, as well as, their family, community and nations! Hiy-hiy! Thank you!
Watch my World Championship Hoop Dance performance here:
The title for this post comes from the song by Buffy Sainte-Marie that I first heard at the 2016 Juno Awards, Indigenous Showcase. This is also where I first heard songs from Cris Derksen's Orchestral Powwow album. Hearing Buffy's song "We are Circling" I immediately thought it would make a great hoop dance song. Since then I have been dancing to "We are Circling" as well as, Cris Derksen's "Intertribal Happy Feet". Together these two Nehiyaw Iskwewak (Cree Women) provide an image of coming full circle for me. From starting with Western dance styles (tap, ballet, etc.) and later becoming a hoop dancer and return to Western dance styles (contemporary), with an infusion of Native dance and movement practices. These two recording artists reflect how we as Indigenous people are circling together today through two worlds and two paradigms. Although they may collide, they also overlap. When these worlds overlap we can find the space of togetherness, and find ourselves circling together.
The video above features these two songs (among others) during our dance demonstrations at our First Nations Dance and Art Summer Camp in July 2016. I started Hoop Dancing in Lethbridge, Alberta over a decade ago, so teaching Hoop Dance in Lethbridge was also coming full circle for me in a physical sense.
The summer camp also represented coming full circle in my experience with Contemporary Indigenous dance and performance. Much of my experiences have been with International groups of dancers and/ or artists from different nations, and backgrounds. However, they were always experienced or trained in both traditional and contemporary forms of art, history, and knowledge (Indigenous and Western). This experience has given me the opportunity to experience a wealth of knowledge from people of different nations including Anishnaabe, Cree, Blackfoot, Mohawk, Maori, etc. I was able to use these experiences in our summer camp, which included a diversity of youth, representing nations such as Blackfoot, Cree, Mohawk, Navajo, and Maori. It felt like I was bringing together a new circle of Indigenous dancers. Like throwing a rock into a lake, creating a ripple effect. Even though we may not always see each other, wherever we go, wherever we dance, we are carrying the experience and knowledge of our mentors, friends, family with us, always. We are circling together.
In May 2016 I was invited to return to Calgary for the Puppet Power 2016: Connecting Generations conference. I was asked to do an 8 minute presentation on the theme of Elder Wisdom. I spent months worrying, contemplating, and revisiting how to synthesize the immensity that is elder wisdom from the perspective of the hoop dance into 8 short minutes. After all, the hoops only encompass, ALL OF CREATION! An intimidating task for anyone, and I certainly do not consider myself an expert on the topic of elder wisdom. Dance on the other hand, I hope I have learned some things over the past decade, especially after years of researching, interviewing, and working closely with several senior artists as mentors in dance and performance. Although, I was told that it takes ten years to become competent in the dance and twenty years to master it. So, according to these standards, I still have a long way to go… Which reflects what elders often say, ‘I don’t know anything’ or ‘I am still learning’ or ‘I only know what I have experienced’ are common insights I have heard from different elders. This is true. A person can only know what they have experienced or been taught. However, our elders have had significantly more experiences than us. This is a key aspect of Elder Wisdom.
When I began learning the hoop dance, Jerry First Charger, my teacher and master hoop dancer, shared that each hoop represents a challenge in your life. The more that you go through the hoops represents how you handle the challenges in your life. As you continue to hoop dance, you get better, faster, stronger. The same thing goes for challenges in life, the more you go through those challenges, the stronger and wiser you become.
Most people see the beauty of the hoop dance, but what people often fail to see, as the late Basil Johnston wrote, is the struggle within the dance. As the hoop dancer transitions from one shape to the next, they struggle to maneuver through the hoops. So the hoop dance represents the beauty in life as well as the struggle in life. So in it's entirety it represents the Beautiful Struggle of Life.
This is where elder wisdom comes in. Our elders having gone through significantly more experiences than us, and have had to go through more hoops than us. They have overcome many more struggles than we can imagine. I think this is evident if you have ever sat with an elder to listen to their life story.
For me, this sums up the true meaning of Elder Wisdom, having gone through the beautiful struggle of life long enough, having survived and overcome the many challenges, successfully navigating through life’s hoops to be able to know how to successfully navigate the challenges life throws your way.
To share that Elder Wisdom with the youth to guide them on their journey through the Beautiful Struggle of Life is how we Connect Generations.
“Wendy's Highlight: I was moved by Sandra Lamouche's raw and honest hoop dancing wisdom - particularly as she caught her breath to say the struggle of accomplishing the dance itself is a reminder of the struggle of life and the importance of building resiliency.” - WP Puppet Theatre Newsletter
“Not until we are lost do we begin to find ourselves” – Henry David Thoreau
This autobiographical solo uses Contemporary Indigenous Dance, hip hop, and hoop dancing to tell my story as a dancer and a Cree woman. The intent of this piece is to show how culture, story, and ceremony can guide towards healing in a post-colonial/ contemporary society. I believe healing is the first step on the path towards well-being and self-determination for First Nations communities and nations.
To tell my story I use a tutu, hoodie, and hoops – that represent the three stages I have gone through as the title of the piece suggests: Nimihitow Iskwew (Dancing Woman): A Cree Woman’s Journey through Life and Dance. My mother first put me in tap and ballet classes because I was pigeon toed; this was my first experience with the healing power of dance. I continued in Western dance styles such as tap, jazz, ballet, lyrical and modern and eventually was chosen for solos. Even after spending years with the same group of girls several times a week in dance classes I never developed friendships. I was the only Native girl in the class and came from a large family with low income. I did not ‘fit’ the stereotype that mainstream society had envisioned of what dancer should be and look like. I quit dance altogether and found alternative, self-destructive, ways to fill the time that was once occupied by up to five dance classes a week, plus weekend solo work. I did not fit into mainstream identities and fell into expressions of identity that were often negative and stereotypical ideas of First Nations. It wasn’t until I learnt the hoop dance and contemporary Indigenous Dance that I found a healthy balance between my passion for dance and my identity. As I began to hoop dance I learnt many cultural stories and teachings. I began to live my life according to these traditions. This month I am celebrating eight years abstaining from alcohol and have been a professional hoop dancer since 2005.
I began developing this piece in 2011 after studying the cycle of creation – destruction – and re-creation discussed by Anishnaabe (Ojibway) spoken word artist and scholar Dr. Leanne Simpson in her book “Dancing on our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence” (2011). I use this resurgence theory in my piece 'Sagowsko', about the Anishnaabe hoop dance story, which you can read more about here.
Although this project began to take shape five years, it has taken me until now to reach a point in my life where I am able to tell my story. I feel that I am where I need to be, or where I am meant to be. All aspects of my life are aligned including, my job, dance, family, and ceremonial life, so that I can fulfill my purpose in life, which is to create and promote culture and dance as a way towards well-being - spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental.
The piece debuted at "Hip, Hoop, Hooray" in October 2015, for the 10th anniversary of learning the hoop dance. (See some of the other performances here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d07Dm7ojtmg)
I will be performing this solo piece for the Slave Lake Native Friendship Center (SLNFC) Youth Conference “Rekindling Your Spirit” March 18-20.
I have also been invited to perform for the Lethbridge Society of Independent Dance Artists (LSIDA) fundraiser on April 2, 2016 at the CASA Lethbridge at 7pm, tickets $20.
Please join us at either of these events, where I will be sharing my passion alongside other talented dancers!
Dancing Earth’s SEED Project held its first intensive with global Indigenous Ambassador artists in 2014. During that first year I learned that dancing on the land is a holistic experience, which includes the four directions and especially the four elements – wind, earth, fire and water. (Read more here)
In August of 2015 I was thrilled to be able to participate in the second summer dance intensive centered on the theme of ‘seeds’. A small group of alumni from the previous year participated in ‘land-dancing’ a term used by Artistic Director and Choreographer, Rulan Tangen, to describe her unique methodology for dance creation and movement. This process involved many instances of 'dancing into new territory' in a literal sense, such as bringing Indigenous dance into public spaces, private land, traditional Indigenous land, and colonized spaces.
Dancers from last year’s intensive received training in how to teach Dancing Earth Methodology as we developed our own individual dance rituals, warm ups, and workouts. I was moved by the gesture of her gifting us with the tools and responsibility of sharing land- dancing techniques and Dancing Earth methodology with others across North America. I felt overwhelmed and incapable as I thought of sharing Indigenous contemporary dance and movement to people who may have no prior knowledge of Indigenous dance or culture. I imagined the reactions I might get. I imagined what others might say or think. Then it occurred to me that many of the Indigenous Choreographers I look up to have been doing this for decades. What would have it been like for them? Ten, twenty, thirty or more years ago to be one of only a handful of Indigenous dancers in North America or even in the world who practiced Indigenous contemporary dance. Before them we had our ancestors who carried on our dance practices, ceremonies, and songs when it was illegal. Facing imprisonment they kept dancing and practicing their culture resisting the attempts at outright extermination and assimilation of our peoples and cultures. Without these leaders we may not have any of the opportunities we have today.
Once I returned home I reflected on the intensive and the new skills and tools I was able to develop in terms of teaching and facilitating dance. I was not sure if I would have a venue to utilize these new skills but I remained hopeful. Since the intensive I have found more opportunities to use dance at the school where I work. I have used these teaching techniques in our Dance & Storytelling program; one-on-one with students who have diverse needs, such as anxiety, anger, trauma, etc., I am now teaching a weekly class on dance, and I will also be returning to Physical Education classes to teach hoop dancing and other dances. I have been able to adapt what I learned in Santa Fe to the people and situations in my life, making dance relevant to each person, student, or class.
This journey over the past six months reminds me of what my hoop dance teacher taught me about native culture – it is a living thing, always changing. Cree author and artist Floyd Favel says about Plains Cree philosophy:
“Movement, in Cree, waskawewin, defines life. When somebody dies they stop moving, aponwaskawecik. If you asked "What is life?" A simple explanation using the Cree language would be that life is movement” (Forsythe).
If we are using this fundamental belief of native philosophy in our dance practices, they will always change and evolve. In this way, we are always dancing into new territory. It is a humble remembrance to think of all the people who danced before us so that we could be here today.
P.S. This summer I will be helping teach a First Nations Art and Dance Summer Camp, more information will be available soon, here: http://www.casalethbridge.ca/
James Forsythe . “THE PLAINS CREE GROTOWSKI”. Brandon University. http://www3.brandonu.ca/library/CJNS/21.2/cjnsv21no2_pg355-366.pdf
Dancing Earth’s Website: http://www.dancingearth.org/
Travel Funding from Alberta Foundation for the Arts.
On August 6, 2015 I was invited to the Pincher Creek Municipal Library to do a presentation for the summer storytelling program.
I choose to use dance and storytelling to share the Anishnaabe hoop dance story. I first learned this story almost ten years ago when I began hoop dancing. The full story along with many others can be found in Basil Johnston’s book The Manitous: The Spiritual Life of the Ojibway People. This story, like many First Nations stories, is timeless.
The story is about Pukawiss, ‘the disowned one’, who was interested in creation and the natural world since he was a child. His father wished he would become a great hunter and warrior like his older brother, Maudjekawis. Pukawiss tried to be more like his brother, but would always return to his interest in nature and imitating animals around him. His father gave all his attention to his older brother and eventually Pukawiss became disowned and left his family. Pukawiss began to travel as a performer, dancer and choreographer becoming well known telling stories about life – love, hate, jealousy, etc. Eventually, he wanted to create a dance that showed all of life, the good and bad, so he created the hoop dance. Through the hoop dance we are taught about the struggles and triumphs in life. The beautiful designs reflect the beauty that is found all around us, such as birds, butterflies, flowers, etc. As the hoop dancer transitions from one shape to the next this shows that there are also struggles in life. The transition from one design to another also shows how everything in life is also interconnected, and the hoop itself represents interconnectedness, equality and balance.
I think everyone can relate to Pukawiss’ journey and the burden of meeting the expectations of others. On a larger scale I think this story also shows the struggle of fitting into the roles that society and/or culture might assign to us. It is a powerful message for youth and young adults today to ‘be yourself’. Although, our skills, personality, or identity may not conform to the expectations that society and culture set forth we may find that we ‘fit in’ better when we are true to ourselves.
I would like to dedicate this post to the memory and legacy of Basil Johnston who shared this story, and many others, in his books. Basil Johnston began his journey to the spirit world on September 8, 2015. He was a leader and inspiration with a profound knowledge of Anishnaabe culture, language and history.
Miigwetch- Thank you!
Photo Credit: Sally Turner, Pincher Creek Library
This summer I was invited to represent Alberta First Nations at the Dance World Cup Opening Ceremonies and was a Delegate for the International Dance Council (CID) at the World Congress on Dance both held in Whistler BC, from July 3-5, 2015. This event hosted dancers and choreographer from around the world. The Dance World Cup was a competition and showcase of dancers, while the World Congress consisted of lectures, presentations, workshops and performances.
Sacred Dance and Storytelling
This amazing opportunity to participate as the only First Nations dancer allowed me to learn other styles of dance from around the world and how they have evolved. Renu Sharma, from Mumbai, India, instructed a workshop on Kathak an Indian Classical Dance. She shared with us that the dance was originally done as a sacred dance only, but is now performed in public. This is similar to the hoop dance, which was traditionally only done as a healing ceremony, but today has evolved to be performed in public. Kathak is a storytelling dance, which again is also similar to the Hoop Dance, which is also a storytelling dance. The fact that these two Indigenous dance styles were originally ceremonial/ sacred dances and are also storytelling dances, suggests that storytelling and healing go hand in hand.
Brain development research tells us that in order for us to make sense of and recover from a traumatic experience we need to reconcile the right (creative) and left (analytical) hemispheres of the brain. This requires telling a story that will appeal to both sides of the brain – rational and sequential, and at the same time, creative and emotional. This is something we can achieve through dance. When we dance from the heart, expressing our emotions, and at the same time tell our story, we are able to synthesize an experience to create healing. When we dance our stories we are able to create healing for ourselves and others.
Dancing in the Four Directions
Professor Patricia Torres of Mexico taught a workshop on Pre-Columbian dance. She shared that everything in the dance is done in fours and to the four directions. The dance begins around the drum in a clockwise direction, which represents the movement of the earth around the sun. Dr. Torres also shared that dance is taught by watching only. A workshop description of hers reads:
Life enhancement through rituals. Our connection with others in the four corners of the world, the elements, the flavors of life all contained in our mathematical rhythms to feel the pulsations of the earth and our heart beating. Energy flow surrounding us and embracing all others in the circle. (www.malintzin.org)
These teachings are similar to Hoop Dance teachings and powwow dancing. The hoop or circle is a sacred symbol that encompasses the four directions. Many Native dances from powwow and social dances to ceremonial dances are done clockwise, which follows the movement of the sun. These dances are also taught almost exclusively by watching only.
When we dance in a circle and with the four directions we are dancing with the movement of the natural world. This helps us to understand and connect with the world around us. Learning by watching, helps us create our own awareness and discourse about what dancing is and what it means to us. In these ways we are creating our own story that is also interconnected with other stories. Daystar Rosalie Jones, says that:
No one dancing Intertribal can dance only for technique, or only for ‘show’ or only for self. If it is anything at all, Intertribal Dance is the expression of the collective culture of the community, in its regalia, in its protocols and etiquettes, in its songs, and in the spirit present when one dances.
I fully agree with her insight, but would add, by dancing with the movement of the earth, sun, and four directions we are also expressing the collective culture of the natural world and even the universe. This expression of collective culture can be interpreted as a form of storytelling.
Dance is storytelling. It may tell a singular story, a collective story, or a universal story. Storytelling is an important part of healing, so dance your story and bring healing to yourself and the world!
Thank you to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts- Cultural Relations Grant to help make this experience possible!
Daystar Rosalie Jones. The Value of Indigenous Dance in Academia. http://daystardance.com/value_indigenous_dance.html
The Brain Development information comes from a two hour presentation, for more information visit: http://www.albertafamilywellness.org/resources/video/how-brains-are-built-core-story-brain-development
Patricia Torres. Pre-Columbian Dance Workshop. http://www.malintzin.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=110&Itemid=68
Patricia Torres. Intercultural Dance Workshop. http://www.tiahui.com.mx/
Nehiyawsko Pikiskwew (Cree Woman Speaking) allows me to have a voice and share with others. My goal is to share insights as I learn and grow as a dancer, choreographer, and woman. My passion is to show the healing power of dance and culture. I love learning from elders, experience, and research and being able to synthesize Native and non-Native ways of knowing!