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Jingle dancer offers a mix of training, dance and colorful dress

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By Carolyn Wilson -- The Lawton Constitution

LAWTON, Okla. (AP) - Tahnee Ahtoneharjo loves her work.

From February to December, she performs the Jingle Dance nearly every weekend in a different city across the United States. She relaxes a little during December and January and concentrates on her fashion creations, then goes on the road again in February.

A member of the Kiowa and Muskogee Creek nations, her love of dancing began when she was two with ballet and tap dance lessons. She later took ballet lessons with world-famous ballerina Yvonne Chouteau. When Ahtoneharjo was 13, she decided it was time to earn some money to help her parents pay for all those lessons, and she started performing the Fancy Shawl Dance at pow wows. Three years later, she began her career as a Jingle dancer.

''It has footwork like ballet. It was easier and more fun,'' she said.

She also said it was easier on a knee injury she had received while she was playing soccer in high school.

Her years of ballet lessons can be seen in her performance of the energetic Jingle Dance. However, the judges notice her outfits almost as much as her dancing. Therefore, she needs a variety of dresses to successfully compete. She has 32.

''The pow wow circuit is like a beauty pageant,'' she said. ''I try to wear what will show up best in the surroundings.''

If the arena is dark, she wears bright colors and she tries to match her dress to the color of the paint on the walls. She also considers the temperature when choosing which dress she will wear. Some of her dresses are made of velvet and other heavier fabrics for wear on colder days.

Ahtoneharjo made her jingle dresses from many different materials including, velvet, spandex sequin and ultra suede. She tries to find materials vivid to the eye, she said. Some dresses she decorated with contrasting appliques. The most outstanding feature of each dress, however, is the hundreds of metal cones which she crimps on so they jingle together while she is dancing. Some dancers make sure they have seven rows of cones on their dresses to represent the seven clans in each tribe, and some have 365 cones, she said; but, she and most other Jingle dancers usually follow their personal preferences in the number of cones and their placement on each dress.

Some of her dresses have silver cones and some have gold cones. She purchases her cones ready-made, but cones - or jingles - were originally made from shells then rolled up snuff can lids.

Ahtoneharjo treasures the fact that some members of the Ojibewe tribe have told her, ''You make me proud.''

''I want to, as I am a guest in their dress,'' she said.

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She has been welcomed into the category of Jingle dancers and her friends have told her stories about the dress and asked her to dance with goodness in her heart.

Her fashion creations are her other passion. While her friends were asking for cars on their 16th birthday, she asked for a sewing machine. She got one.

''It was the best day of my life,'' she said.

She taught herself to sew and is now well-paid for her creations. Along with making her own jingle dresses, leggings and moccasins, she makes leggings and moccasins for other dancers, outfits for Fancy Shawl and Grass dancers, aprons for Fancy dancers and cloth and buckskin shawls for Women's Traditional dancers. She also trades some of her completed outfits for supplies like jingles and beads.

In 2006 she won Best of Show at the Santa Fe Indian Market for her traditional buckskin dress made of elk skins.

''My artwork means a lot to me. Sharing those awards is what I am more proud of,'' she said.

She has a reason to be proud. This annual Indian market hosts the largest art competition that makes or breaks Indian artists' careers, she said.

She and her friends and neighbors share pride in their creations and enjoy looking at what each other has made. When in fabric shops, they get excited when they see all the different materials available. Sometimes they get funny looks from other people in the shops, she said, because not many young people are excited about sewing these days.

When she and her friends are at the annual Schemitzun pow wow in Connecticut every August, they go to the big fabric outfits in New York; and when they are in California for several pow wows in September, they go to Los Angeles fabric places, she said.

Ahtoneharjo inherited her talent for sewing and beading. Her grandmother and great-grandmothers were known for their beadwork, and she and her family and friends are always beading and sewing, she said. They also teach the younger members of the family to bead and sew.

Her grandfather once told her, ''It is your duty to carry on this tradition.''

She is doing her part to carry on this tradition and to carry on the tradition of the Jingle Dance.

''I found my niche. I plan on dancing until I die.''