Heating Up the Circle

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Pow wow culture has given us a plethora of Native social dance styles, such as the Fancy Dance, Grass Dance and Jingle Dress Dance, as well as other traditional dance styles. One type of dance not as often seen on the pow wow circuit is the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Smoke Dance.

The Smoke Dance is a social dance created in the modern era. It is homegrown Haudenosaunee, and longhouse people who live faraway love it. Consider it a gift in return for all the social dances and songs that we have received and enjoy.

Smoke dance champion Heath Hill, Oneida, punctuating his last step on beat at the 25th Annual Ganondagan Festival, Rochester, NY, July 23-24, 2016.

Smoke dance champion Heath Hill, Oneida

ORIGINS

There are many origin stories about the Smoke Dance, as well as tales and myths. One story explains that because the longhouses had smoky pit fires, the dance was created by the men to drive out the smoke, and they were assisted by women with their own moves. A similar origin story claims the stomping of the feet assisted in keeping the fire going as that helped push oxygen to the fire.

In modern times, longhouses were replaced by log cabins with wood stoves on either end, and though smoke does not cause the same problems it once did, the Smoke Dance is still around.

Some couples in demonstration are even showing some hip-hop elements in their Smoke Dances.

Another story says that many years ago, there was an exchange of dances between the Osage and the Haudenosaunee, and this “smoke dance” was an Osage gift-giving dance in which participants smoked pipes. The Cayuga-Seneca longhouse in Oklahoma Indian Territory carried many social dance songs back to Six Nations at Ohsweken and to Allegheny in western New York. In modern times, the Osage War Dance, wasase, was said to have travelled east to Haudenosaunee territory perhaps by this connection.

Seneca Pow Wow Mens Smoke Dance contestant.

Seneca Pow Wow Mens Smoke Dance contestant

The most likely origin story is that the Smoke Dance started as a sped-up version of the War Dance, which was danced by men only. In the 1920s and 1930s at demonstrations of Haudenosaunee songs and dances, the older men singers sped up the tempo of the old War Dance songs as a challenge to see if the younger men dancers could keep up. The result was the Smoke Dance, in which the steps move from fast to slow and the dancer is allowed to freestyle, but must stay with the beat.

The biggest change came about in the 1990s, as Smoke Dance exhibitions were presented at western powwows where Haudenosaunee people lived. It was easy to teach, because Smoke Dance songs are sung alone with a single water drum. (Nowadays, a larger skin drum can be used to fill an arena space.) Heating Up the The origins, tales and myths of the Smoke Dance By Alex Jacobs Circle As the Smoke Dance became a bigger part of the Powwow Trail, it became competitive for men and women dancers, just as Haudenosaunee communities have held contests since the 1960s.

COMPETITION

The Haudenosaunee Smoke Dance, as we see it now, has separate competitions for the men and women. It has only about 18 songs, but new songs can be made for it. It resembles the Fish Dance, in which dancers use fast steps and take turns showing off their moves. The men’s competition for the Smoke Dance includes slower war dance style moves in which they can strut and mimic preparation for battle and then much faster steps; women dance to only the faster steps. Both men and women Smoke Dancers are judged on staying on the beat, gracefulness and regalia.

Valery Parker won the Women's Smoke Dance Special, as well as the Women's Fancy Dance Special at the Gateway to Nations Pow Wow June 6-8, 2014, Brooklyn, NY

Valery Parker at the Gateway to Nations Pow Wow

The modern Smoke Dance features both women and men. Some old-school tribal members may disapprove of women participating in something based on the War Dance, but as happened with drum groups in the West and lacrosse in the East, women have been integrated and embraced. Recently, some man-woman couples in demonstration are even showing some hip-hop elements in their Smoke Dances. That will no doubt also disturb elders, but could generate more excitement among young people.

The women’s shuffle step is symbolic in that they should keep their feet touching the earth as a matter of respect, but the Smoke Dance allows them to almost fly across the dance arena. Women dance only to the faster Smoke Dance songs, and their event can be the most anticipated part of a Smoke Dance contest.

Because it is a physically demanding dance, the songs are short and they tend to incorporate breaks. As with all dances, staying on the beat and ending with the final beat of the drum is crucial. Otherwise, the Smoke Dance is open to individual interpretations and styles.

REGALIA

Regalia for the dance is a simple but elegant woodlands style. The men wear gustoweh, ribbon shirt, armbands, leggings, apron, sash or belt, with raised or flat beadwork, and they may carry a feather fan. The women wear yoked, long-sleeved blouse-dresses cinched at waist or with a belt, over matching skirt and leggings, and braided hair with ties or beaded crown or tiaras, also with applique and flat or raised beadwork.