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The Power of the World Works in Circles

You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation and so long as the hoop was unbroken the people flourished. – Black Elk, from the book Black Elk Speaks.

Eleven, twelve, thirteen hoops weave around Dallas Arcand’s arms and legs as he keeps time to a drumbeat. He makes birds, flowers and buffalo spring around his body as the hoops join, separate and link together again in fantastic shapes that transform the man into whatever being he chooses. Then he brings down the house with a one-handed cartwheel over a rolling hoop.

“I can’t even understand how he did some of those moves,” said Jocy Bird, Dakota Sioux/Mandan/Hidatsa, one of five judges who named Arcand the winner of the 22nd Annual Heard Museum Hoop Dance Championship in Arizona this year.

Hoop’s popularity is on the rise and dancers are continually innovating with new steps and formations. Performed at pow wows across North America and dance showcases aimed at Native and non-Native audiences around the world, the dance wows crowds everywhere.

At the annual Heard Museum competition dancers are judged on precision, timing/rhythm, showmanship, creativeness and speed. They pick up the rings, which are often made of light plastic tubing, one by one with their feet while keeping time to a drumbeat. Then dancers work the hoops around their bodies, bringing them into tight balls before fanning the hoops out into forms that speak clearly about nature and unity without using a single word.

Bird, an award-winning powwow dancer in her own right, says that in the end the physical and emotional energy dancers put into a performance separates the good from the great. “It takes a lot to give it all you can – somebody could do the exact same moves as another person, but it feels different because they put all their energy into it,” she said.

The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion. Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. –Black Elk

“There are so many stories that there is no one true story,” said Brian Hammill, Ho Chunk, of the origins of the Hoop Dance. Hammill, the Heard Museum 2012 senior Hoop champion, says some stories tell of a healing dance performed by a child, while others say the dance was invented by a warrior who returned home from a journey and wanted to communicate what he had seen during his travels.

Hoop Dance probably developed over many years in several communities across North America, as circles have long been an important part of Native ceremonial dances. What we do know for certain if that the style of Hoop performed at the Heard Museum was founded by Tony White Cloud, Jemez Pueblo, who performed it at showcases across the United States beginning in the 1930s.

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“It really is growing as an art form, and as a sport,” said Debra Krol, Xolon Salinan Tribe, Senior Communications Manager at the Heard Museum. She adds that even as Hoop gains popularity as a performance, other private, ceremonial Hoop Dance remains important, especially in healing ceremonies, and are not performed for the public.

Unlike dances that are specifically for men or women, everyone participates in Hoop. In fact Jocy Bird’s mother, Jackie Bird, Dakota Sioux/Mandan/Hidatsa, was the first woman to compete in a championship at the Heard Museum in 1994, and Lisa Odjig, Odawa/Ojibwe, became the first woman to win the world championship in the adult category in 2000.

The hoop can represent the passage of life, the seasons, the four cardinal directions and the circle of Native community, among many other things. For Dallas Arcand, it represents life on every scale. “Look under a microscope and scientists see all those cells, and those are circles that each and every one of us is made up of,” he said.

The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. –Black Elk

Arcand didn’t grow up with hoop dance. When he was 14 years old he saw hoops for the first time at a friend’s house, and when that friend showed him a few formations it jump-started a life full of dance. “If not for hoop dancing I don’t know where I would be, a lot of people would say I’d have ended up dead or in jail,” Arcand said. At first he made hoops out of an old garden hose and experimented before beginning to practice more formally at a community center. “My mom was very supportive of me and I’m thankful for that, even though she drank and she had her own struggles with alcohol,” he said of his early years as a dancer. “Dancing was better than what I was doing before–getting into trouble with the law–it was something good that I was good at, and it got me attention that I was looking for.”

Like Arcand, many of the other top placers at the Heard Museum this year don’t just dabble in dance as a hobby. Brian Hammill, the senior division champion, does around 300 performances a year. “I like to keep busy,” said Hammill, whose young son dances too. Keeping busy requires keeping in shape. “When I was in my 20s I didn’t have to work out at all,” he said. “Now that I’m in my 40s I work out at least five time a week and do martial arts.”

Dancing is also a family affair for Lane Jensen, Navajo/Pima/Maricopa, who finished second in the adult division at the Heard this year. His son Tyrese Jensen, Navajo/Pima/Maricopa, won the teen division, and his wife and young daughter also dance.

Tyrese Jensen, 13, remembers seeing his father and a friend hoop dance when he was about five years old, and wanting to join in and dance with them. Since then he has grown into a champion. Tyrese’s inspiration comes from a huge variety of sources, from his grandparents’ stories to the digital world that teens are steeped in. “I usually think of stuff when I watch a basketball game or go on YouTube” he said. “That’s how I get ideas, from technology.”

The innovations of each dancer are part of what makes Hoop so interesting. From the movements of animals like the buffalo to hip-hop style, the whole world is inspiration. “It evolves every year,” Hammill says of the dance. “It’s amazing watching these young guys come up with new ideas and constantly change.” Hammill believes that along with constant innovation, Hoop Dance’s power to communicate is one of its great attributes. “People can relate to it no matter where you go in the world – if they are Native or non-Native, if they speak English or not,” he said.

The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. – Black Elk