Qualities of a Great Dancer

Strength in Tradition by Cheryl Davis

Strength in Tradition by Cheryl Davis © 1998

What qualities make up a great dancer? From what sources do they draw from? I enjoyed reading the following internet posts on this subject & hope that you will enjoy them as well.

Gledanh Zhinga – Blacksmith wrote: A “great” straight style can’t be described with words, but I can put forth opinions, ideas, and suggestions.

All of your joints should be “unlocked” (the Chinese say this about tai chi chuan). With the feet, you can “glide“, toe-flat, or flat-flat, but fairly smoothly and with equilibrium. On the accent beat, the foot can be moved forward and suspended in air, what horsemen call “dwelling” in a horse’s gait, but the dancer must be “hot” to make this look good. Abe Conklin could do it. The body can be low, bent, and angular, especially after the “goshga beats”, but not necessarily just then. You can come off the bench low. The old Kaw dancers were good at that. When they got near the drum, they would then turn to go sun-wise. Bill Wahnee and Gary Begay have that angular style. After all, “straight” does not mean to be like a telephone pole. Unfortunately, many judges nowadays think that straight means upright. Duh! Hullo!

George “Woogie” Watchetaker, Comanche, dressed fancy feather when he “came out of retirement” in the 1950’s, but he had a wonderful angular, straight style, even while in a fancy contest. I’ve never seen the beat of it.

Straight dancers move sun-wise, unless maybe you’re heading for the drum before you turn to go sun-wise. While circling the drum of course, you can zig-zag, follow curves and arcs, go low, and go semi-high.

Many dancers don’t use their head and furthermore, their shoulders are stiff. Smokey Lookout, when dancing, looked as though his neck was hinged…lots of movement. I enjoyed watching that. The great head movement comes toward the end of a kind of bodily whiplash. It is a subtle body ripple, hard to explain. It is NOT just bobbing and nodding your head.

The Historian gave us words to some songs above, and you’ll notice that he wrote them in phrases, so to speak, line by line. Generally, the songs are sung that way; the songs are sung with “phrasing”, and the good or great dancer will dance to the phrasing. This is difficult to explain, and is not always easy to do, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the song. However, a “great” dancer will rapidly “catch” a song’s phrasing, even without knowing the song. An example of this would be to slightly “duck and dive” or change direction at the end of certain phrases (pardon the Northern expression). If the dancer knows the song’s meaning, as the Historian mentioned, then this adds a psychological dimension, which may aid the dancer’s style. This is subtle stuff, and many judges wouldn’t know a phrased dance statement from apple butter.

I personally don’t care to see the tail stick touch the ground, nor do I dance in small circles. I like to keep things moving sunwise, similar to a war party on the move (Bill Wahnee’s ideas on straight dancing).

I think to kick off the last beat looks OK for a proper tail dancer, because he continues that statement by turning and going to the bench. I don’t think it looks too good in a contest. To me, it appears ungainly.

One of the awful things a dancer can do is to put the first of his two foot beats (same leg) on the unaccented beat of the song. George Flying Eagle, Taos/Navajo, calls this ha ha “dancing on the wrong side of the drum”. Now, sometimes the drum will screw up, and perhaps a singer will start the song on the wrong beat, say the intro on the second push-up. A good or great dancer will pause, and get on the beat again.

This sometimes happens with a drum of young men who are still learning. I was present a couple of years ago, when a traditional lady dancer verbally chewed out a contest drum for changing the beat over and over again. The boys looked confused. I think what she told them might have just collectively parted their hair.

Finally, I met a female flamenco dancer recently, and she asked me whether, when I straight danced, was it “from the heart”, as in flamenco dancing. I replied, “Yes, I certainly don’t want to dance from the head!”

Travelingmocs wrote: A person needs to be smooth and light footed. Like all over dance styles you need to know the songs. You have to love to dance. Man when you see tape of the late greats like Abe Conklin, Johnny Hughes, and for the people who were around back in the day to see the old dancers. When you would see them dance you would know what its all about. Its hard to sit here and say what the style is all about. To really understand it you need to spend time out where it comes from, “Oklahoma,” and spend time with (the) elders…

Cherosage wrote: A sense of a smoothness in your step. An understanding of the style and what it represents. Knowing the songs and the different steps to go with the right song. The willingness to learn the right way of dancing, and knowing the the difference. Imitation is an honor to the one being imitated. Dance in the dances that the best dance and do what is correct.

Beth said… “Dance it from you heart. It is the same with singing. you have to feel the song from inside.”

Trudanny wrote… ladies that dance on beat, fringe that “snaps”, poise, graceful movement… outfits that are well done: beadwork is a slow process and takes much dedication. All dancers have a reason behind the designs they pick… traditional or the newer “intertribal” designs… it’s all good…. as for off the arena floor, there are ladies that carry themselves well, and dance for the love of it. those qualities shine through when they’re dancing….”

It is never too late to be what you might have been. ~ George Eliot

Beautifully said.

And what about knowing a song’s meaning?

Historian posted the following: “…when a dancer knows the words of a song (both the literal translation and the story implied behind the words), then that can affect the dancer’s style as he interprets the song’s meaning in a way that he feels it. Below are some examples of a couple song translations as I understand them.Ponca Hethuska Song:
A-wa-ki noN-shko-na la
A-wa-ki noN-shko-na la
A-wa-ki noN-shko-na la
A-wa-ki noN-shko-na la
“SiN-te Gle-shka,” ha noN-cu-le-ga zhu-wa-gla igla
Da-ha-wa-ge ga-ma zha-ma no-i, ha ya hi ya
MaN-zi u-wa-la ge shko-na shoN-zhiN-ga la la
ShoN-zhiN-ga da-ha-wa-ge gli-za-ga
English Translation:
Do you want to fight me?
Do you want to fight me?
Do you want to fight me?
Do you want to fight me?
“Spotted Tail,” hurry and come with your group.
Get your shield, I’m not afraid of you.
Over these yellow cliffs, to fight me, young Lakota.
Young Lakota get your shield and prepare.
Commentary by Sylvester Warrior, Headman of the Ponca Hethuska from 1958 to 1973:
“Awaki nonshokona, ‘do you want to fight me’? Sinte Gleshka, we happen to know that word. It’s the name of a Siouan war leader. It means, ‘Spotted Tail,’ Sinte Gleshka. Nonculega zhuwagla igla, ‘hurry and come with your group’ to fight. ‘I’m not afraid of you’. Manzi uwala ge shkona shonzhinga dahawage glizaga, ‘do you want to fight over these yellow cliffs’? Shonzhinga, ‘young Sioux,’ dahawagle glizaga, ‘get your shield, prepare’ to fight. Of course it doesn’t actually say all that, but that’s what it means.”
Commentary by a member of the Ponca Hethuska Society:
“My favorite translation is one that concerns a Ponca war party and a group of Lakota led by Spotted Tail. The meaning of this particular song says this: The two groups encounter each other and begin preparations to fight. The Poncas call out to Spotted Tail, who had obviously been calling insults, ‘Hurry! And come with your group Spotted Tail, we’re not afraid of you.’ Then it seems one of the Ponca men spots a young Sioux warrior and wants to test his courage. The Ponca taunts the boy by calling out, ‘Young Sioux! Get your shield and prepare to fight.’ The song mentions the ‘yellow cliffs’ which are located in the northeastern part of Nebraska near the South Dakota border. It seems that whoever controlled these cliffs used them as a sentinel post and could maintain control of a vast area by executing surprise attacks on any intruders.”
Omaha Hethushka Song:
(vocables in first part of song)
She-thiN the thiN, doN-ba ge, tho he
She-thiN the thiN, doN-ba ga
Ha doN-ba ga, ha doN-ba ge, tho he the
“A-ga-ha-moN-thiN,” doN-ba ge, tho he tho-e
English Translation:
(vocables in first part of song)
Yonder that one going, behold him.
Yonder that one going, behold him.
Really behold him, really behold him.
“Walks Outside,” behold him.
Commentary by A. Fletcher and Francis LaFlesche:
“The words are few, an exclamation bidding the people to behold, to look on A’gahamoNthiN, and would be quite unintelligible but for the story which gave rise to the song. A’gahamoNthiN died in the early part of the last century (early 1800s). He was a man of great valor. He had won and received all the public war honors but he was not satisfied. At each meeting of the Hethu’shka Society all through one Fall and Winter he would rise and declare: ‘During the next battle in which I take part I will drag an enemy from his horse or die in the attempt!’ The following Summer, when the Omaha were on the buffalo hunt, the tribe was attacked by the Yankton and a fierce encounter took place. True to his word, A’gahamoNthiN charged the line, dragged a Yankton from his horse, and slew him. Almost immediately A’gahamoNthiN was killed. In emulation of his courage the Omaha made a desperate charge on the Yankton and defeated them. This song was composed to commemorate the warrior who made good his promise and in so doing saved his people. Of A’gahamoNthiN it was said, ‘He spoke a word and chased it to his death’.”

“Be good, be kind, help each other.”
“Respect the ground, respect the drum, respect each other.”
(Abe Conklin, Ponca/Osage, 1926-1995)

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Published in: on January 27, 2008 at 9:26 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. There are as many different versions of the origin of the Ponca Hethuska Society as there are in the ways it is seen in written text. Some of the more popular versions have been Hethuska; Hethushka; Hayoshka; Helushka; Heduska; Haethuska; Helocka and Hecucka, with the most commonly accepted version used today among the Ponca and Omaha spelt Hethuska and pronounced as (heh-THOO-shka). Unfortunately, the exact translation of the word has been lost. Although recently, some linguistic scholars studying the Dhegiha dialect have theorized, after consulting with living Ponca informants, that the term may have gone through a plausible evolutionary process.

    Jim Duncan, a current member of the Ponca Hethuska Society, addresses the possible evolved meaning of Hethuska in his Masters Thesis completed in 1997 titled, “Hethuska Zani: An Ethnohistory of the War Dance Complex,” when he states:

    “The best linguistic evidence indicates the word is similar to the Osage term for the War Dance, IN-lon-shka. IN-loN is the archaic term for ‘thunder,’ and shka is the root word for ‘play,’ or shka-the. Therefore being, ‘a place to enjoy oneself.’ One interpretation being, ‘those who revel in thunder.’ (Fletcher & LaFlesche, 1911, p. 459) The term Xthe-xe (pronounced hley-hey), is the word referring to the elite tattooed warriors, who pledged to carry the sacred war hawk in battle. In Omaha, this term also refers to the Mark of Honor or tattoos on these warriors. The Omaha warriors were dedicated to War and Thunder. The reconstruction therefore, of the term Xthe-xe-shka would be ‘for the enjoyment of the tattooed ones,’ or ‘the place the honored ones enjoy themselves.’ (Fletcher & LaFlesche, 1911, pp. 219-220; LaFlesche, 1930, p. 531; LaFlesche, 1931, p. 132)”
    (Duncan, 1997, p. 2)

    Some scholars such as James Murie (1914), Clark Wissler (1916) and James Howard (1965) have theorized that, “Hethuska dances probably came to the Ponca from the Pawnee.” (Howard, 1965, p. 132)

    In his work titled “Pawnee Indian Societies,” James Murie states that the earliest form of Omaha Dance came from the Pawnee around 1820, who called the dance I-ru-ska or “the fire is in me.” (Murie, 1914, p. 608) The Iruska Dance, sometimes referred to as the “Hot Dance”, had as it’s focal point, the act of drawing meat chunks from a boiling kettle. During the 1820s, Murie believes the Pawnee gave or sold the Iruska to the Omaha tribe, which referred to their version of the dance ritual as the Hethuska.

    It is further believed by Murie and Wissler that in the early 1840s, the Omaha sold the right to perform the dance and it’s songs to the Yanktonai Dakota, who soon after gave performance rights to the Teton Lakota. Both nations called the ceremony “Omaha Dance” in honor of the people from whom they had bought it.

    Through my years of research into many written sources and interviews with quite a number of elders from numerous tribes, the Omaha/Grass Dance “seems” to have been tranferred, given or passed on in the following manner. Keep in mind, that this represents an educated theory at best, and there are still many differing opinions.

    First, because a number of Pawnee sources have the Iruska Dance origins prior to the Omaha/Ponca Hethuska origins, I will start with them.

    Pawnee = Omaha (cir. 1820) ?
    Pawnee = Arikara (cir. 1860)
    Arikara = Crow
    Crow = Shoshoni
    Crow = Blackfoot (cir. 1883)
    Blackfoot = Sarsi
    Blackfoot = Flathead
    Blackfoot = Nez Perce
    Blackfoot = Yakima
    Blackfoot = Kutenai

    Next a number of Omaha/Ponca sources claim to have the Hethuska Dance origins, which were once also Kaw, Quapaw, and Osage traditions, hundreds of years ago, but the Omaha/Ponca maintained the traditions and the other three tribes did not. Later, after the Omaha and the Ponca split, and the Omaha and Ponca passed on the traditions independently.

    Omaha = Kiowa (cir. 1840)
    Omaha = Yankton (cir. 1840)
    Omaha = Yanktonai (cir. 1845)
    Yanktonai = Lakota (cir. 1860)
    Lakota = Assiniboine
    Lakota = Gros Ventre
    Lakota = Santee
    Santee = White Earth Ojibway (1891)
    White Earth Ojibway = Northern Potawatomi
    White Earth Ojibway = Menomoni (1911)
    White Earth Ojibway = Ho-Chunk
    Northern Potawatomi = Kansas Potawatomi
    Northern Potawatomi = Sac & Fox
    Northern Potawatomi = Kickapoo

    Ponca = Kaw (1881)
    Ponca = Greyhorse Osage (1883)
    Ponca = Skidi Pawnee (1911)
    Ponca = Comanche (1916)
    Ponca = Apache (1919)
    Ponca = Sac & Fox
    Ponca = Southern Cheyenne
    Kaw = Pawhuska Osage (1884)
    Pawhuska Osage = Hominy Creek Osage (1885)

    While there are many other Plains and Prairie tribes that have Hethuska Dance, Omaha Dance, Grass Dance traditions, they are not as easy to trace the origins.

    In addition, depending on the geographic location of the tribe or nation receiving the dance traditions, the tribe or nation that was passing the traditions on, and the time period they were passed, determined whether the traditions would evolve into a Northern Traditional dance style or a Southern Straight dance style.

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