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Michael Jordan in a Shawl, Drew Brees in Beads

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It’s the nature of every high-stakes athletic competition. A surge of anticipation ripples through the crowd as the highly trained and superbly conditioned contestants take their places. Then comes a hush as the audience awaits the first move. The athletes exchange glances as tension and anticipation build. Then the drums begin to pound and the athletes start to dance.

Welcome to the world of competitive pow wow dancing. We’re talking serious athletics here. If you doubt it, you should check your contacts. Take, for example, the crowd-pleasing men’s fancy dance, with its spinning and crouching. As feathers fly and coup sticks twirl, the performance pushes contestants to the limits of their endurance. That’s true for women, too: Their fancy shawl dance also requires endurance and athletic prowess at a high level.

The 40-year-old fancy dancer Doug Good Feather, Hunkpapa Lakota, of Denver, has taken many first-place prizes during his travels through the Dakotas, Colorado, Minnesota, Wyoming, Illinois, Oklahoma, New Mexico and beyond. He does regular four-mile runs to stay in shape, doesn’t smoke or drink, concentrates on leg- and core-work and comes across as the trained athlete he is. But, Good Feather stressed, he does it “for the love of dancing—I’m not in it for the money.”

Larry Yazzie, Meskwaki/Diné, of Tama, Iowa trains by running three to five miles daily and lifting weights. He does fancy dance as well, and said that a ballpark figure for his pow wow circuit earnings, including international appearances, is around $50,000 to $60,000. But even as he rakes in the winnings, he keeps a wary eye out for rivals, notably Spike Draper, Navajo, from Kirtland, New Mexico and Jerry Cleveland, Ho-Chunk, from Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. Both are younger than Yazzie. “That’s why I train hard to get to the next level,” he said. “It’s a personal challenge to keep up with the young men, because when I’m in shape I still feel I can stack up against the best of the youngest.”

That intensive training—and athletic prowess—is evident when you see Yazzie perform a dance that requires many spins, crouches, twists and turns to a drumbeat that over the course of a performance can get faster and faster and then faster still, until drummers and dancer are just a blur of motion and sweat.

Yazzie’s drive to be in top condition has pushed him past those daily runs and weight-lifting sessions; he now works with a personal trainer and sticks to a high-protein diet with lots of fruits and vegetables—no junk food or sodas.

He travels widely for pow wows. To some extent, his destinations during the season depend on the prize money offered. He has been awarded the top prize at such top-notch events as the Schemitzun Powwow hosted by the Mashantucket Pequot, the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Wacipi in Shakopee, Minnesota, the Grand Casino Hinckley Powwow in Hinckley, Minnesota, and the Chippewa Cree Pow Wow in Rocky Boy, Montana.

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That far-flung itinerary brings up another parallel between pow wow dancers and athletes like those in the NBA or NFL: They both must travel a great deal, and during their competitive season may find themselves in a different city (or state) every week. The biggest difference is that the NBA and NFL players travel first class, often in private jets, while the pow wow circuit is more like the rodeo or maybe semipro boxing. Contestants spend months on the road during the season, staying in anonymous motels in anonymous towns, counting the folding money in their pockets as they calculate how much and how long it will take to get to the next event, racking up frequent-flier miles or mileage on the old van’s odometer. With prize money sometimes as high as $10,000, pow wow dancing is also a high-stakes endeavor, and its rivalries are as fierce as any between the Lakers and the Celtics.

If the fitness routines and travel schedules for the men seem daunting, those of Tanksi Clairmont, 30, Sicangu Lakota/Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, a women’s fancy shawl dance champion, might seem overwhelming. Clairmont, a mother of two, runs up to 12 miles a week, follows a cardio-heavy biometrics fitness and nutrition program, jumps a lot of rope and regularly does weight and resistance training.

“Dancing works every single muscle,” she said. “The shawl can start to feel real heavy while you’re dancing, and the judges can tell if that’s happening.” Coordination is crucial for her performances because fancy shawl songs are very fast, and drum groups may have trick stops and other ways to trip up dancers in their songs. She also has to know at least 25 fancy shawl songs. “If you don’t know them, you look silly if you don’t stop on the beat. There are many different drum groups and you don’t know who you are going to get.”

Last summer Clairmont logged more than 15,000 miles and danced at 17 pow wows that took her all over North America—from her home in Minnesota to Texas, Kansas, Wisconsin, New York, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Michigan, South Dakota, North Dakota and Canada, just to name a few venues. Then it was back to Minneapolis, where she lives while attending graduate school in sports management at the University of Minnesota. She estimates that she earned about $15,000 in prize money during those hectic months last summer. But that doesn’t account for all her expenses—gas or plane fares, food and lodging.

Still, Clairmont has many first-place finishes, including at the Gathering of Nations (four in a row heading into this year’s event); the Denver March Powwow; the Prairie Island Indian Community Pow Wow, in Welch, Minnesota; the National Museum of the American Indian Pow Wow in Washington, D.C.; and the Morongo Band of Indians Pow-Wow, and many others. Her commitment level is on par with any of the professional athletes who travel for their sport.

She readily acknowledged that there are rivalries on the pow wow circuit.

“I do have a lot of friends within my category and some of the women just don’t get along because they can’t handle the competition,” she said. “They don’t dance for the right reasons. I truly try to make other people happy—elderly, disabled—they light up when you’re performing for them. That’s why I dance.” She smiles, then added, “but I do like to compete.”