Exhibition of culture
Intertribal troupe of Native Americans demonstrate authentic songs, dances
Steamboat Springs — Charlie Denny moves to the beat of several drummers. The 13-year-old was in Steamboat Springs last week to perform with an intertribal troupe of Native American dancers from Colorado and Utah.
Schoolchildren, college students and adults packed the gymnasium at Colorado Mountain College to watch a display of color and movement unfurl on the hardwood floor.
Denny moved in perfect time to the rhythm of four men seated around a large drum. He danced solo twice, holding the crowd’s attention with his impressive footwork and concentration.
Denny took up hoop dancing at age 7. He practices several hours a week in the basement of his home in Fort Duchesne, Utah.
He can dance with 16 multicolored hoops at one time, an accomplishment warmly acknowledged by his audience. The crowd clapped and cheered as Denny treated the audience to different hoop figures. Lightning, a caterpillar and a butterfly with flapping wings were some of his creations.
The black, red, white and yellow colors of the hoop represent the four nations, his uncle Reffel Kanip said.
Kanip was one of the singers seated around the drum. The singers are part of the well-known Red Spirit group that performed at the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
“The drum is the heartbeat of the Indian people,” Kanip told the audience. The drum, he said, is mankind’s oldest instrument. For the Indian people, the dances it fostered help to mark important life events, such as birth and death, weddings and war.
Men would go out and dance before a battle, he said.
Several men in the group demonstrated the dance, crouching low as they moved around to imitate a warrior sneaking up on his enemies.
Women dressed in traditional regalia, or the historical everyday dress of Native American women, danced in the traditional way.
They moved gracefully and slowly in a circle, their feet light on the gym floor. One foot planted itself noiselessly in front of the other.
Different dances go with different regalia. A grand entry featured an intertribal myriad of regalia and dancing styles.
Dancers later demonstrated “crow hopping.” As the singers’ voices soared, feet moved as if trying to avoid invisible birds scattered on the gym floor.
Denny offered an example of grass dancing. Kanip explained his style of dance represented his people coming to a new area and leveling the grass before they set up camp.
It’s something akin to a groundbreaking, he said.
The young dancer flattened the imaginary grass with his feet. His body swayed as though it was blades of grass being swept back and forth by the wind.
Fancy dancers and jingle dancers were somewhat less conservative in their movement than the women dressed in traditional regalia.
They spun and hopped and twirled to the singers’ cries.
The two fancy dancers spread their arms wide, their flowing cape giving them a bird-like appearance.
The lone jingle dancer was appropriately named for the jingle she made as she glided across the gym floor.
Both dances were medicine dances.
The entire exhibition offered onlookers authentic song and dance, Kanip said.
“This is the real McCoy,” he said.
The Native American Club at CMC made the exhibition possible. Some of the club’s officers performed as well.
For some of the dancers, their stop in Steamboat Springs was a bit like coming home.
Loya Cesspooch told the audience how her ancestors lived in Northwest Colorado before they were forced to move to Utah.
“This is very dear to our hearts,” she said. “We are mountain people in the desert.”
The audience was not always sitting on the sidelines.
The dancers invited them onto the gym floor for one dance.
Veteran dancers joined hands with strangers and sidestepped in a circle.
The circle grew to three deep, as smiles replaced hesitation.
The constant steady movement of the circle represents the way the world is always turning, Kanip said.
“We share our cultures,” he said.
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