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Workshops & Residencies


Indigenous Dance, Ceremony and Performance 

Dance and Ceremony. Ceremony and Dance. At least in the English language, Indigenous Peoples use these terms  interchangeably, and we do so, I believe,   because  Indigenous Peoples have always used these terms interchangeably.  A dance is a ceremony; a ceremony is a dance.   To dance is to “do” a ceremony. Going to a “dance” is very often going to a “ceremony”. Often,  the “dance” element taking place in Indigenous Dance or Ceremony may be minimal as compared to “dance” as expected within a western dance ideology, but the intention with which that movement is executed or performed by the aboriginal, is of the essence. In such practice,  the total body/spirit  is engaged in a specific task at a prescribed time and  in a prescribed place.  That definition applies equally well to contemporary Indigenous Dance on the stage as it does to traditional Indigenous Dance or Ceremony.

In western dance and theater, the spiritual and the secular have, for the most part, become separate, at least in our more modern times. But as one steps back in time, we begin to see the gradual manifestation of the integration of the spiritual and the secular, the spirit and the body. The most obvious example for those of us living in the western world was the Greek Era, when consulting the Oracle was a way to assist normal human beings into a communication with the super-normal.

But, if we go back farther still, we find those original peoples, those original Indigenous Cultures around the world  that successfully found a balance between the spiritual and the secular, between spirit and body, giving right and left brains equal engagement. Dreams also were given the acknowledgment they deserve, and dreams in turn gave authority to the dreamer. Dreams, revelations and visions became the substance from which to create ceremony and song and dance.

In today’s world, we are fortunate as yet to have with us those few Indigenous Cultures that still hold intact the methods by which to call on the power sources of the natural world: the animals, the elements, the ancestors, and the cosmos. Through such methods, indigenous peoples are able to power their lives as individuals and as communities, in a way that we in the 21st century strain to duplicate in the midst of astounding but altogether secular technologies.



Consideration of these aspects of Indigenous Experience, leads me to believe that spark, the inspiration, the image formulated - whether for receiving instruction for ceremony, and that of receiving creative insight for art making  or making dance,  springs into being from the same center. The process of creating ceremony and of making dance,  follows a similar path into existence. That path can be described in four  events:

     Preparation:      Purification, Sweatlodge        Artistic Training

     Offering             Sacrifice, Prayer                     Performance

     Thanksgiving               An Acknowledgement of Gifts

     Celebration        Dance, Give-Away                  A Party, A Sharing

In the first event, the event of Preparation, the individual is aware that the seriousness of the Offering to come requires some kind of purification of body, mind and spirit.  In Ceremony, Preparation is usually achieved through fasting and the sweatlodge, another ceremony in itself.  Preparation leads to the Offering, which is the action for which the participant has prepared: the presentation of self through the performance. Among the divergent cultures of Turtle Island, ceremonies have been created out of the human experience, living in particular circumstances, for millenniums. An Offering can be a dance, a song series, a storytelling event, a flesh offering, or a combination of all these and other physical/spiritual actions.   Thanksgiving can also take myriad forms, but it is always prayerful, with the intention of acknowledging the Gifts given to us, sometimes by human counterparts: therefore, the “Give-Away”. Celebration can take many forms: often it is more dancing which is social in nature,  a kinetic release from the ceremonial discipline. Feasting as well  can be a very festive affair.

 An individual participating in western dance (whether it be on a stage, outdoors on the grass, or in your living room), actually undergoes a similar Journey through these four events. In today’s western world  we are usually aware of only two of these four events: the Performance and the Celebration. Somehow,  in the process of becoming “civilized”, Purification and Thanksgiving have been forgotten. But as any dancer, musician or visual artist knows, the Preparation of training, proper diet and the discipline of the studio take on the aspects of Purification.  Performance can be a “peak” experience for the individual, an Offering to one’s self-accomplishment as well as to the team spirit of the ensemble. I  know that I am aware of this process whenever I perform as a dancer. Because of the urgency and all-encompassing nature of the dance form (“I am the vehicle of the dance”), such a process also permeates and even dictates, the way I live my life, the way I must live my life in order to meet the demands of being a dancer, a choreographer and  an artist. This four-part Journey is a very human process,  but it is at the same time, most definitely a spiritual process, at times coerced by powers inside of me, and at times, coerced by powers very much outside and beyond me. 

There is increasing interest among both academics, scholars, and artists, to apply the term aesthetics to Indigenous Contemporary Dance.  Once again, we are brought to a crossroads between western and cultural terminology and meaning.   Aesthetics: from the Greek,  meaning “to perceive”, even “to hear”, to be “sensitive to art and beauty”. 1 There would be no debate that the human being, regardless of culture, would be capable of these “sensitivities”. Or would they?  Isn’t it possible that persons living in differing cultures, in differing historical or prehistorical time periods, might be differently sensitive to any given stimulation? 

And what of Imagination? Webster’s New World Dictionary defines imagination as: The act or powerof forming mental images of what has not been actually experienced; or of creating new images and ideas by combining previous experiences; creative power; the ability to understand and appreciate the imaginative creations of others, especially works of art and literature; resourcefulness with dealing with new or unusual experiences. 2  I call your attention to one particular definition given: creative power.

Indigenous Peoples have always been sensitive to the existence of the powers of the natural word:  the animal powers, the plant powers, the powers of the elements, wind and thunder, the power of ancestors, and of the unseen around us. The cultures of Indigenous Peoples have, through the millennium,  taught its individuals to be sensitive to  the powers of dreams as revelations, as inspirations to be listened to, understood, interpreted, and to take action upon. In these cultures,   dream revelations or inspirations can be made public. One of the ways to make such revelations public is by creating a dance and/or a song. In some instances,  the song and dance are presented or performed  within an existing ceremony, as in the case of dancing to illustrate a hunt or war experience within the dancing circle.  In other cases, a new ceremony can be created  out of respect for the revelation of a dream or vision, and with an eye to the benefit of the community and its individuals.  Sometimes these ceremonies take on the essence of telling a story in cultural symbology.

Beverly Hungry Wolf has become well known for many books, but none so valued as “The Ways of My Grandmothers”. 3  Published more than 20 years ago, the book is now being recognized as an important record of the old way of life of the Blackfoot of Alberta, Canada. In the book, she tells the story of the coming of the Iniskim to the people.  In “The Woman Who Brought Back The Buffalo”, Beverly Hungry Wolf  gives the account of a woman who was given a Gift (power) that would assist the people in a time of famine and stress.  For sake sake of brevity, I capsulize the story here.

In a long ago time, the buffalo had abandoned the people, who were reduced to eating boiled scraps of leather. One day, a young married woman was out gathering firewood; because her carrying strap kept breaking, she was forced to stop work to fix it. Then she heard a voice singing. Looking around, she discovered that the voice was coming from an “unusual-looking stone sitting…on a little bunch of buffalo hair”. 4 The woman picked up the stone and carried it home. That night, in a dream, she learned the songs which the  stone had been singing.  Then, the Buffalo Stone told her to have her husband call together the holy men for a ceremony. When all had gathered, they carried out prescribed actions of rubbing the Buffalo Stone with fat and paint against their bodies. One by one they so honored the Iniskim,  learning and singing the songs while “dancing” in this way.  They were then told to tie down their lodges. A fierce storm and  strong wind that night brought the sound of hoof beats and heavy breathing; a lone buffalo bull in camp was not to be harmed. As morning dawned, the storm was gone, and in its place, a large docile  herd of grazing buffalo allowed the hunters to take as many as they needed for food and clothing. The Iniskim had provided for the people through the faithfulness of the young woman, her husband and the believing participation of the community. The people paid their respects to the young wife, and brought a tiny offering to the sacred Iniskim, which had been placed on a small alter in the lodge. 5


What do we see in this story?  There are at least five relevant characteristics:


1. A dream/inspiration can be sought by an individual; or it can be given gratis, unsolicited, from the unseen powers.

2. The telling of a dream/inspiration is a serious undertaking.

3. Dreams/inspirations, to be of community good, must take public form.

4. When song and dance become public, i.e., shared with the community, ceremony has been created.

5. Such ceremony becomes the vessel in which the original dream/inspiration is revealed to all and remembered by all, out of respect for the unseen power, and for the benefit to the community and its individuals.



Are there similarities between this experience of indigenous ceremony, and the contemporary dancer or choreographer’s experience in practicing his/her craft of dance, i.e. dance making and dance performing? There are at least five relevant characteristics:

1.  A dream/inspiration can be sought by an individual;
     or it can be given gratis, unsolicited from the unseen powers.

2. The telling of a dream or inspiration  is a serious undertaking. 

3. Dream or inspiration, when choreographed, becomes a public event.

4. When Choreography becomes public, i.e. shared with the community, a performance has been created.  

5. Such performance becomes the vessel in which the original dream  or inspiration is revealed to all and remembered by all, out of respect for the unseen power  and  for the benefit of the community and its individuals.



The dreams, inspirations, and revelations that are being put to us today, on the stage, by contemporary Indigenous Choreographers, will not be in terms of western symbology. They are speaking to us through their own cultural symbology, which might differ from one Indigenous Nation to another. The original 500 nations of what we now call America, might translate into several thousand separate Indigenous Nations across North, Central and South America. The western mainstream is going to be challenged by these messages laid before us.  Those same challenges were made well over 30 years ago, in other mediums, by the new breed of Indigenous Contemporary Artists – painters, sculptors and designers who rose brilliantly out of the Golden Years of contemporary American Indian art in the Southwest (1960-80). Since that time, North America had has a groundswell flowering of  professional Contemporary Indigenous Artists who shook the art establishment. The shakeup of the dance world has begun in earnest.

Yes, these new choreographers have very often been trained in the best of the western dance forms – ballet, postmodern dance, butoh, martial arts, theater. But these are also the times in which a true, real Renaissance of  Indigenous Culture is also taking place. Individuals and entire communities of such cultures are seriously confronting the western mainstream about past injustices and abuses. We have become aware of our rights, , of our own strengths, of our own possibilities. In other sectors of North America,  where one might say that the “youth are being lost” to drugs and disillusionment,  the Indigenous Peoples are holding onto balance, on the firm ground of both tradition and creative insight. Tradition is giving the present generation a surprising strength; creative sight is empowering them to find new solutions to old problems.

Every dream was given/is given to an individual. As a result, today we have a cornucopia of divergent styles among our indigenous choreographers. Many have come from a ballet background, as does Santee Smith, Michael Greyeyes, Rulan Tangen and Geatan Gringas. Others have a largely postmodern background, such as Geraldine Manossa,  Byron Chief Moon and Troy Twigg. But somewhere along the way, each and every one of them has had a moment of dream, of revelation, a moment of cultural and creative insight, or perhaps several such moments. In that moment,  each of them has had to face a moment of truth: who am I, where do I come from, and how do I perceive the power that is within me. How do I pay respect to the unseen power given to me? I believe each of them made the decision to become sensitive to the teachings of their cultural birth, and to make public their dream by creating a Ceremony - which you will see here as Performance. 

As a result, we are privileged to witness these Performances which carry in them some piece, whether great or small, of the essence of a cultural teaching:  teachings that  tell us about who they are, how things came to be, and the place of the human being in the natural world. In return, each  choreographer and company that you see performing  will challenge you to test your own powers of cultural and artistic aesthetics, your awareness, sensitivity,  and imagination.  If we are faithful to the Journey, we will become cognizant not only of the Offering, but of the Preparation, the Thanksgiving and the Celebration of Contemporary Indigenous Dance. We will, together and individually, greatly enlarge our ability to understand and appreciate these new  creations of  “The Dreamed Imagination”. 




1. Webster’s New World Dictionary

2.  Webster’s New World Dictionary

3. Hungry Wolf, Beverly,  The Ways of My Grandmothers.  Quill, 1982.

4. Ibid., p. 163.

5.  Ibid., pp. 1630-166.




Rosalie M. Jones © 2008


Rosalie M. Jones  copyright 2008




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