Skip to main content

To dancer, art is a liberating feeling

By Judy Gibbs -- The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY (MCT) - It was quite a leap - no pun intended - when Leslie Deer switched from the sedate, traditional American Indian dance style she grew up with to the athletic Fancy Shawl Dance.

The Muscogee (Creek) woman from Shawnee was dancing across the continents in the late 1980s with the New York-based American Indian Dance Theatre when the director asked her to fill in for a Fancy Shawl dancer who'd quit.

''I really thought, 'This is impossible - to go from Traditional dancing to hopping around out there. I can't imagine,''' she said.

Other dancers were not much help. ''They used to tell me, 'Just bounce around. Just practice. Just listen to some music. That's all we can really tell you.' In a way, it's very individualistic,'' Deer said.

So she began what she still calls ''hopping around'' and got hooked.

''I've been Shawl dancing ever since,'' she said. ''It's kind of liberating to be able to get in the arena and express yourself.''

The Traditional and Shawl dances are opposites in many ways: The oldest women's dance in modern competitions and the youngest; the most uniform and the most free-form; the smallest range of movement and the largest; one seemingly fixed in time and the other still evolving.

The Fancy Shawl Dance began sometime in the 1950s or 1960s. The way Deer heard the story, two Traditional Northern dancers faced off to break a tie at a competition.

''At some point in the song, one of the women took her shawl off her arm and wrapped it around her and began to do some little fancy things with her feet to try to outshine the other one,'' Deer said.

Young girls quickly adopted the changes, added new ones and developed a new outfit with a beaded cape and flared skirt because the traditional, T-shaped dress did not accommodate the new moves.

Elders initially disapproved, but their opposition gradually died out, Deer said. Today, the Fancy Shawl Dance is popular at competitions throughout the country, not just in the North, where it originated.

''It's still evolving, still changing,'' Deer said. ''Over the years, it becomes more aerobic. Our regalia become a little more dazzling. We use rhinestones and sequins now and neon-colored fabrics.''

The beaded capes or yokes take hundreds of hours to complete. Deer borrowed the regalia at first, but then made her own during a six-week break between tours. A friend showed her how.

''I got one quick lesson and I was on my way,'' Deer said. ''I was beading from 7 a.m. to 4 a.m. I'd sleep a few hours and get up and do it again.''

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Today, she has two beaded capes, which she mixes and matches with different dresses and shawls. She is working on a third between adding and replacing other accessories.

''About the time you think you have completed all your accessories, your moccasins get a hole. It's like a never-ending cycle,'' Deer said.

She left the American Indian Dance Theatre in 1999 and now works as a job trainer for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, competing when she can at intertribal pow wows like the Red Earth festival. She also performs with the Oklahoma Fancy Dancers, a group of former pow wow champions who visit schools, libraries and corporate meetings to share their Indian culture.

Visualize a butterfly, drummer Steve Littleman told a group of Parmelee School fourth-graders before Deer demonstrated the Fancy Shawl Dance.

With her purple, fringed shawl spread like wings, Deer kicked, skipped, high-stepped and twirled, her deerskin moccasins just inches from the front row of students.

''I love performing for kids,'' Deer said. She spent her own childhood in the San Francisco Bay area, but returned to her mother's native Oklahoma to attend college.

She planned to go to law school after graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 1988 with a degree in public administration. But a chance meeting led to a job co-hosting an Indian radio program in California. That led to a backstage interview with the director of the American Indian Dance Theatre, who offered her a job.

A month later, after learning the difference between stage left and stage right, she was in Paris performing with the 26-member troupe.

''After that, I was hooked,'' she said.

So when the director asked her to replace a Fancy Shawl dancer, Deer figured it was just part of the job. She did not expect to adopt it as her own dance and take it to pow wows, but a friend convinced her that was the only way to get good.

''You can't just practice in your living room or the hotel room wherever we are on tour. You have to take it to the arena,'' she said.

After more than a decade as a Fancy Shawl dancer, Deer wonders if the time will come when she decides to leave the athletic moves to younger women.

''At some point, I may have to change styles - go back to where I started,'' she said.

Copyright (c) 2007, The Oklahoman. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.