Powwow dances are beautiful expressions of Indigenous spirituality, history and culture. There are a variety of regional dance styles performed by men, women and children across North America. For all dancers, the spiritual centre of a powwow is always the Circle — a revered area blessed by a spiritual leader (see Shaman; Religion: Aboriginal Peoples). Dancers must only enter the Circle from the east, as they walk in the direction of the sun. In addition, powwow dances, drum music and singers, and regalia are sacred elements of the celebration, meant not only to entertain, but also to tell important stories about personal and cultural history (see Powwow Music; Powwow Singers).
Although powwows are said to originate with the Plains Indigenous peoples, cross-cultural exchanges have produced various regional variations to powwow dances (see Powwow History). The most well-known of the Northern styles (originating from the northern Great Lakes and Great Plains regions) include men’s and women’s Northern Traditional Dances. The most well-known Southern styles (originating from the central and western areas of Oklahoma and the southern Plains peoples, including the Kiowa, Comanche, Pawnee, Ponca), include men’s Southern Straight Dance and women’s Southern Cloth Dance. Some dances, namely men’s and women’s Fancy Dances, women’s Jingle Dance and men’s Grass Dance, are less geographically specific in modern times because they have been adapted in different ways by both Northern and Southern communities.
There are also dances that are specific to certain First Nations, or that commemorate certain events or elements of nature. For example, the Chicken Dance (Northern Plains), Crow Hop (Crow of Montana) and Rabbit Dance (Sioux) are regional dances that originate from observations of nature and animals. The Sneak-Up Dance (Plains) and Smoke Dance (Haudenosaunee) are warrior dances. The Hoop Dance (Anishinaabe) incorporates anywhere from one to 30 hoops in a story-telling dance. There are many other types of regional and ceremonial dances performed by various First Nations at some powwows.
Most powwow dances are performed by individuals. However, there are dances for couples as well, such as the Owl Dance (Northern Plains). The Friendship Dances or Round Dances (Anishinaabe/Northern Plains) are intertribal dances that are open to the general public, allowing both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to celebrate together in song and dance. During the Round Dance, all participants join hands and circle the dance area, facing the centre of the circle.
At times, Métis dancers (often performing the traditional jigging dance), Inuit dancers and dancers from Indigenous nations outside Canada and the United States, such as Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, among others, are asked to perform at powwow celebrations. In this way, powwows can be a forum for cultural exchanges.
Powwows can be defined as traditional or competitive. Traditional powwows are held in local communities, and do not have dance and drum group competitions. Competitive powwows have dance categories for women, men and children. Dancers who score the highest in their category receive awards or cash prizes.
At contest powwows, the dance categories can be gender- and age-specific. For example, the jingle dress dance is typically performed by women, while the Smoke Dance was historically performed by men. However, with the resurgence of two-spirit traditions, and the progression of women’s rights movements in the 20th century, some powwow organizers and First Nations allow dancers of the opposite sex to participate in traditionally male- or female-specific dances. Most dances are also categorized by age: adult, teenager/youth and “tiny tot” (children). The panel of judges evaluating the competitive dances scores performers based on dance category as well as regalia and dancing abilities.
Powwow dancers dress in regalia appropriate for the dance category. This includes not only the dress or outfit worn, but also the accessories, such as moccasins, eagle feather fans, hair roaches (a type of male headdress), jewellery and make-up. Regalia is unique and sacred to each dancer. It should therefore not be confused with or likened to a “play” costume. Powwow clothing and accessories are created with great care and attention, and hold deep meaning and spiritual significance to the dancer.
Regalia is adorned with various materials. Some outfits feature intricate beadwork (often sewed by a family member or friend), while others use ribbons, shiny materials or the use of traditional materials, such as porcupine quills. Cotton is often the base-material for regalia; however, traditional materials, such as buckskin, are still used. While these outfits are beautiful to look at, powwow etiquette requests that observers not touch or take pictures of dancers’ regalia without permission.
Dancers must take great care to ensure that their regalia is well-secured before a performance. Losing a part of regalia during a dance could cost a dancer the competition. It could also be considered a serious cultural and spiritual offense, especially if an eagle feather falls to the ground. Eagle feathers, which for many First Nations represent a connection to the Creator, are to be especially respected. Dancing will stop until a fallen feather is properly retrieved.
Popular Dance Styles
The most well-known and wide-spread powwow dance styles in the Canadian Plains and Great Lakes regions of Canada are the Northern-style dances, including men’s Traditional, Grass and Fancy, and women’s Traditional, Jingle Dress and Fancy Shawl. There are regional variations of these dances across Canada as powwow dance styles have evolved over time and have been adopted by various Indigenous communities.
Men’s Northern Traditional Dance
The men's Traditional Dance varies based on nation, region and band, but most trace its roots to earlier, established traditions among the Indigenous peoples of the Northern Plains.
With the longest history of performance at contest powwows, the men’s Traditional Dance is most closely associated with 19th century warrior society dances, including the Omaha or Grass Dance. These warrior dances descended from earlier forms of the dance performed before the creation of reserves. Returning to the village after a battle, warriors would sometimes reenact the conflict through expressions of dance for the women, children and elderly members of their community. Similarly, hunters would reenact their stories of tracking prey, imitating horses, buffalo or birds as they danced. After centuries of generational sharing, powwow music and dance have become standardized.
The regalia worn during the men's Traditional is a personal expression of creativity and artistry. The colour and designs used in each individual's outfit can represent their family, clan or tribal name. This style stems from 19th century warrior and hunter societies, and is often thought to represent different animals of the hunt. Dancers wear a circular bustle of eagle feathers, which represents the cycles of Mother Earth and the unity of everything. The eagle flies the highest and carries the prayers of the people skyward, making its feathers extremely sacred. Feathers are traditionally granted for feats of bravery or other accomplishments. Some dancers carry traditional items that represent their status as warriors and hunters, or in more modern times, as war veterans from foreign international conflicts.
The dance steps of the men's Traditional Dance tend to be low to the ground, and more subdued than other contest powwow dances. The movements of the dancers emulate those of birds and other animals of the hunt, and may initiate the process of learning how to track those specific animals. Other traditions say that the ability to dance is a gift from the Creator, taught to the Indigenous people by the various creatures of the world, particularly four-legged animals. Their movements demonstrate warrior and hunter prowess. Dancers move forward slowly, stomping their feet and swaying their bodies, imitating the motions of animals. A more modernized version of the dance simulates dodging bullet fire, a style that likely emerged from returning war veterans in the early 20th century.
Men’s Fancy Dance
The men's Fancy Dance is a relatively new addition to the contest powwow. Its origins may rest in the traveling Wild West shows of men like Buffalo Bill Cody. These shows toured the country, entertaining both urban and rural audiences. Though these spectators were already entertained by the traditional dances, men like Cody encouraged dancers to “fancy it up.” The result was the flashier style of dance that has, since the 1960s, been the focal point of many contest powwows.
Another origin story says that the dance emerged after Indigenous veterans returned home from Europe following the Second World Wars. Some argue that veterans had been impressed by some of the dance troupes that entertained the troops stationed in Europe, and were inspired by their colourful outfits. As a result, the dancers made their own regalia more colourful, and their movements more aerobic. Others suggest that in the context of Indigenous rights movements and the increasing inclusivity of powwows in the post-Second World War era, Fancy Dancers’ regalia became more elaborate and colourful.
Fancy Dance regalia is often colourful, and includes elaborate beadwork and other decorations, innovated from traditional styles. It consists of two large bustles; one on the lower back, and one on the shoulders. Dancers also often wear a hair roach adorned with eagle feathers, as well as moccasins. Some dancers attach bells and spinners (eagle feathers) to their regalia, further enhancing the physical element of their dance.
The steps of the men’s Fancy Dance are more energetic than traditional dances, and incorporate a wide variety of creative movements including flips, cartwheels and splits to attract the eyes of the judges. Beyond the main requirement of keeping in rhythm with the drum, the men's Fancy Dance is relatively freestyle, and tends to be a dance performed predominately by the younger members of the contest powwow. The dance is, in many respects, a test of endurance and athleticism.
Men’s Grass Dance
The Grass Dance is said to have originated on the Northern Prairies and is a warrior dance. Some origin stories claim that the Omaha and Dakota established grass dance societies in the 1800s, and extended membership only to the most accomplished warriors. These men often entered the society dances with braids of grass tucked into their belts, therefore giving rise to the name “grass dance.” The men’s dance imitates the blessings and land-clearing that young Indigenous men did in preparation for the site of a ceremony or new village.
Some origin stories also argue that the Grass Dance is a healing or medicine dance. It is said that a medicine man advised a young boy with the inability to use his legs that he should search for strength, inspiration and healing in the Prairie environment. By imitating the swaying of the prairie grass, and becoming one with nature, the boy gained the ability to use his legs. Some stories state that he received information specific to the dance in a vision.
Grass Dancers have long-flowing, fringed and colourful outfits that set them apart from other powwow dancers. They typically wear heavy bells, porcupine roaches, leggings and apron breechcloths. They also wear beaded headbands, chokers, wide belts and moccasins.
The grass dancer’s movements are smooth and graceful, imitating the long prairie grasses that blow in the wind. Some claim that the dance also imitates the motion of eagles, as the body rises, falls and turns. They keep their heads moving up and down, dancing to the beat of the drum, in order to keep their roach feathers moving, which is the sign of a good dancer.
The dance steps indicate that whatever motion is performed on one foot has to be repeated on the other. This is an intentional act of balancing, representing balance in nature and in life. However, some dancers employ trick steps, giving the appearance of being off balance. For example, some will dart suddenly while changing direction.
Men combine arm and head movements with their footwork, shaking their shoulders and swaying their torso from side to side. This is a distinctive element of the Grass Dance, as men rely on body movement to demonstrate skill. Grass dancers are typically physically fit and strong in order to perform such controlled and intricate movements. Dance movements are more elaborate than the Traditional dancers, but less flashy than the Fancy dancers.
Women’s Northern Traditional
Prior to the First World War, women were rarely allowed to dance amongst the men in contest powwows. Traditionally, girls and women danced around the edges of the dance circle. The women's Traditional Dance originated from these early dances performed by women. After the Second World War, when more Indigenous women were given the opportunity to serve in the military auxiliaries of the armed forces, they soon gained the privilege of dancing in contest powwows based on their newly acquired status as warriors as well as the move for powwows to be more inclusive and Indigenous rights movements.
Women's Traditional Dance regalia has more variety than any other women's dance style. The standard clothing consists of a full length dress, or a shirt and skirt combination, that reaches at least a few inches below the knees, usually made of buckskin or trade cloth, which is often heavily beaded and may include matching leggings. These dresses are also decorated with ribbon work, elk's teeth and various shells. Their jewelry is constructed from similar materials; often made from bone and shells. Some dancers drape shawls over their shoulders, and others carry fans made of eagle feathers, raising them gracefully to show respect and honour as they dance.
In contrast to the men's Traditional Dance, the women's version is relatively new, and its steps are modest and unassuming. The style is close to a stylized walk, and consists of minimal steps forward around the dance circle, with only very subtle foot movements. Some traditions claim that the style of dancing slowly around the circle symbolizes when women would remain in the village, searching for their warriors returning from battle. During the women's Traditional Dance, the dancer's feet should never completely leave the ground. This symbolizes the inherent connection between women and Mother Earth. Most importantly, the fringe on the bottom of the dancer's dress should constantly be in motion, swinging in wide arcs. At certain points during songs, dancers may hear a song lyric that holds special meaning to them. They may signal this and acknowledge the words by raising their fans.
Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance
The women's Fancy Shawl Dance is the newest addition to the contest powwow dances. According to tradition, this style of dance emerged in the early 20th century in the Northern Plains area as a counterpart to the men's Fancy Dance. In the early 1900s, the traditional animal skin robes of Indigenous peoples were replaced with shawls that women often sewed themselves. In the 1930s, young Indigenous women would display these shawls by doing fancy footwork during dances. By the 1940s, a number of teenage girls grew frustrated that they were not allowed to perform the men's Fancy Dance. They challenged the status quo by dressing in men's outfits and danced at a powwow in South Dakota, paving the way for the women's Fancy Shawl Dance.
Another tradition says that the women's Fancy Shawl Dance has its roots in a ceremonial dance called the Butterfly Dance. The shawl, as a result, is meant to symbolize the wings of a butterfly, and the fancy steps and twirls represent its style of flight. This imagery is fitting for young women coming of age, as they metaphorically emerge from their cocoon into adulthood.
Women were traditionally required to wear shawls as a sign of proper etiquette when in a dancing arena. The characteristic feature of the women's Fancy Shawl Dance — the elaborate shawl — is uniquely decorated by the dancer with distinct ornaments, beadwork and fringes. The rest of the outfit is simple, consisting of a decorative knee-length cloth dress, beaded moccasins and matching leggings, accompanied by various pieces of jewelry.
Some traditions hold that the steps of the women's Fancy Shawl Dance are meant to portray the flight of the butterfly. Others take their cue from the men's Fancy Dance and incorporate vigorous steps similar to those used by the male Fancy dancers. Since this dance was perfected outside of the framework of the other traditional styles, women's Fancy Shawl Dance breaks with the custom that at least one foot must always be touching the ground. Much like the men's version, the women’s Fancy Shawl Dance is also a dance of the youth, and requires high levels of energy and athleticism.
Women’s Jingle Dance
There are many stories about the origins of the jingle dance, but most accounts trace its roots to Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) territory in either the northwestern US or in White Fish Bay, Ontario, around the 1920s.
Origin stories also consistently acknowledge that the jingle dance came to an Anishinaabe man (occasionally credited as being a medicine man of the Midewiwin Lodge) in a vision. The man was seeking a way to help a sick girl (sometimes referred to as Maggie White), who was likely suffering from the Spanish influenza in the interwar period. In some versions of the story, White is cited as the man’s daughter. The vision instructed the man on how to make a jingle dress, and how to perform the steps of a healing dance that the girl would have to carry out in that dress. The steps were “spring-like” and one foot had to remain on the ground at all times. The more she danced in the dress, the better she felt, until she was fully recovered. In other versions of the story, the women of the girl’s village made jingle dresses and danced for her, until she felt well enough to join the dance. After being cured, White sought to share the jingle dress and dance with other young girls. She founded the Jingle Dress Dance Society sometime after the First World War, at which point the jingle dance became popularized in powwow communities.
Women and healing rituals are closely associated with the jingle dress and jingle dance. Women are credited with the proliferation of the dance because they passed it on to their daughters and to other women in their communities. When women perform the jingle dance, they pray for the health and well-being of themselves, their family and their community. Today, many jingle dancers express common inspirations to dance, ranging from upholding a sense of tradition, to ensuring their family’s health, to having a vision of a jingle dress or jingle dance.
Overtime, other First Nations adopted the dance because it stood for prayer and healing. While the jingle dress and its rituals are still closely associated with Anishinaabe women, the dance has become a symbol of the power of Indigenous spirituality and women.
A common element among all jingle dresses is what makes them jingle: rows of metal cones, called ziibaaska'igananin in the Anishinaabe language. The cones were originally made from tobacco (snuff tin) lids, and have been cited as the source of the energy from which the spiritual power of the dress emanates. The use of tobacco is in itself considered sacred. As the dancers move, the cones that dangle from the dresses jingle and sing out to the spirits. Modern jingle dresses are beautifully decorated with ribbon work and appliquéd designs and are worn with matching beaded leggings, moccasins, purse and hair ornaments.They are steeped in history, spirituality and culture. One woman’s jingle dress is different from another’s, and the styles have changed over time.
There are traditional and modern styles of the jingle dance. Traditional styles required women to not cross their feet, dance backward or in a complete circle. Footwork was to be kept light, nimble and close to the ground. One foot was always supposed to touch the ground, so as to remind the dancer of their connection to the Earth. Old-style jingle dancers also did not use eagle feathers or non-natural materials on their regalia.
Contemporary versions of the dance, however, allow more fluidity; dancers can cross their feet, complete full circles and dance backwards. Modern styles of this dance also feature intricate and controlled footwork that is complex, but demonstrates the dancers’ grace, poise and endurance. In order to honour the beats of the song, and to lift up the prayers of the people, the dancer often carries a feather or fan during the dance.
Because the jingle dance is a healing dance, the women performers are often asked to dance for a sick, grieving or injured member of their community or family.
Powwow dances are beautiful, culturally and spiritually inspired dances that have been modified and adopted by various First Nations and Indigenous communities across North America. Though diverse in terms of regalia, footwork and origin stories, powwow dances remain a testament to Indigenous history, heritage and identity.