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World Champion Hoop Dancer Tony Duncan: A Balancing Act

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He may have inherited his talents from his parents but Tony Duncan, 29, a five-time World Champion Hoop Dancer and performing artist is a star in his own right. He is currently very busy both at home and on the road. He and his wife, Violet, recently welcomed a baby in their family and he recently released his latest album Earth Warrior.

Come February, Duncan, with Apache and Arikara/Hidatsa Nations tribal roots, is going for a 6th world championship hoop title at the Heard Museum. He has been invited to perform at the Native American Music Awards on May 10 and his musical group Estun-bah, (an Apache word meaning “For the Woman”) is expected to perform at local and national festivals. And he is hot, no doubt, says the 2013 21st Century Skins Native Male Calendar, where his photo will soon appear.

His success as a performer has not been lost to the Native youth who look up to him as a role model. He has graciously accepted it, and has been doing workshops about attaining success by living a healthy life through hoop dancing.

In an interview with ICTMN, Duncan speaks about his family—he is a member of the famous Yellow Bird Indian Dancers—his life, his appearance with Nelly Furtado in a music video and what it means for him to be an Apache, a hoop dancer and recording artist. To Duncan a hoop represents the circle of life and when he holds it, it is a balancing act. You can follow him at his website and on social media: and twitter @tonydhoopflute.

How would you describe the stage you are in your life today?
As a performer it's been amazing. I've been blessed to travel worldwide this past summer—to Paris, London, Tokyo, Sweden, the Philippines, the Island of Malta, Toronto and Paraguay. One night I danced in front of a crowd of 50,000 people at an event called the MTV World Stage; another night I danced at the Billboard Music Awards; and another night, The Tonight Show.

Tell us about your children. Do they dance too?
I am a father to three beautiful children: my youngest Nitanis, only one week old; my son Naiche, a year and a half; and my oldest Manaya, is three years old. My daughter has three hoops already and my son Naiche has one hoop. Nitanis will get her little hoop too in time. One of my favorite things to do is to visit my parents and watch my son and daughter dance with their cousins and uncles. There are about 50 hoops being thrown around, with jumping and spinning, and with my father singing for all of them.

What’s the fascination with hoop dancing?
There really is something special about hoop dancing. It's very inviting—a hoop is laying there and you just want to pick it up and start spinning it and jump through it. My father taught me when I was 5 years old, and since then I've just loved dancing with a hoop in hand. More importantly, the hoop teaches us many things, primarily, having respect for all of life and life’s creations. It teaches us about the different cycles of life, the changing seasons upon Mother Earth, as well as the seasons of our own lives. All of life dances in a circle and we’re all connected. It’s a very exciting yet spiritual dance, there's nothing else like it.

How does it feel to be world champion?
It’s always been a goal of mine to win the World Championship Hoop Dance contest, and last year I reached that goal. I grew up watching hoop dancers like Eddie Swimmer, Derrick Davis, Lisa Odjig, Terry Goedel, and Dallas Arcand, to name a few. It always excited me to see them dancing. I’d just sit and watch them in my teens. I'd see these great dancers win that coveted title and I thought if I practiced enough and stayed on a healthy road I could win that title. It all came together last year and it was really one of the best memories of my life.

How does it feel to be competing with your brothers?
It’s a great feeling to dance with my brothers. I try to teach them everything I can, help them with routines and get their contest songs ready. I am very proud of all of them and they each have their own style that really makes me smile every time I see them dance. Competing against my younger brother Kevin in the same category is fun. Knowing how great of a dancer he is keeps me on my toes. I always want to see my brothers succeed in hoop dancing or any challenge they might face in life.

Who inspires you to dance?
My family. They say you dance for your elders, the sick, and those who can’t dance. This coming year I'll be dancing for my Grandma Meyers. She passed in September. She enjoyed watching us hoop dance. She’ll be my inspiration to dance.

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How did you get into music? Tell us about your musical group.

I grew up listening to a lot of Native flute music because it’s what my dad played. I loved listening to John Rainer Jr., Robert Tree Cody, and R. Carlos Nakai, to name a few. My dad also played the flute and taught me when I was about 10 years old. He taught me songs like Zuni Sunrise and other traditional flute-style songs. Then I started creating my own music and added the acoustic guitar and percussion with the help of Darrin Yazzie and Jeremy Dancing Bull. Our trio is called Estun-bah and last year we released our album with Canyon Records called From Where the Sun Rises. My latest album however was released just this past summer. It’s primarily a solo flute album with splashes of traditional drumming, singing, and acoustic guitar. It’s called Earth Warrior.

How did the video with Nelly Furtado come about? What was your experience working with a celebrity?

I received a call from Nelly's manager and he asked if I’d like to hoop dance in her upcoming video. He said they had seen my hoop dancing on YouTube and wanted to fly out myself, my brother Kevin, and my wife Violet to L.A. to begin shooting the next week. It all happened really quickly; I am still surprised everything just fell into place like it did. Nelly is one of the nicest people I’ve worked with. She’s so down to earth and has a great attitude about her work. I was on tour with her in Europe in June. When she found out it was my birthday, she got a cake and had the crew and band sing "Happy Birthday" to me at her hotel. She’s real cool.

To what do you attribute your success?
You have to have a set of goals. Then make the right decisions to attain those goals. I’ve always been drug and alcohol free. I’ve never drunk alcohol in my life, that’s something I am proud to say. Alcohol and drugs have always been one of those obstacles in the way of success for too many young people, Native or non-Native.

Is there something you want to share to the youth or your followers?
Dream big. To all the youth, you really can make your dreams a reality, if you stay on that good path. One thing my dad always says, “Anything is possible.” Whatever it is you love to do, do that. Practice, practice, practice!

What does it mean for you to be an Apache?
Anytime I would complain about something or whine around, my dad would say, “Be Apache.” It meant, quit making excuses and focus on the task at hand. It meant to be tough and not worry about what other people may say or do around you. It meant to respect your ancestors by living your life in a good way.

What else do you want to achieve at this point in life?
I am happy where I am at right now, but tomorrow is a new day with new goals and new adventures. I want to score music for movies and take my music to the highest level. I just want to dance hard and play the best music I can for my family, friends, and for my people. I want to share the beauty of our Native people with the world.

(Courtesy Tony Duncan)

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