Hoop dance champion and Lílwat Nation citizen Alex Wells was 11 hours into his journey from Mount Currie, British Columbia, to Phoenix for the 30th annual Heard Museum World Championship Hoop Dance Contest when the unthinkable happened.
Wells stopped in Calgary to meet up with friends and to grab a bite to eat when his truck was broken into on Feb. 3 and all of his belongings were taken, including his dance outfit.
Gone was his hoop dance regalia Wells spent more than a dozen years working on. He did the beadwork himself and had taken it across the world to dance at places like England and Taiwan.
Now, it was gone and Wells had second guessed his decision to travel to Arizona to compete in the competition he won in 2001. Yet, with the hoop dance world so close-knit, Wells completed his journey to Phoenix and found plenty of support from family and friends across Turtle Island.
“As soon as I got word out, so much support came in all across Indian Country,” he said. “Fellow competitors offered outfit pieces. I was told to make sure you come down and to go have fun still. That was everybody’s message. It was very uplifting.”
The Heard Museum celebrated its 30th hoop dance championship on Feb. 8 and 9. The event had a record number of competitors with 97 in multiple categories with prizes in the hundred and thousands of dollars. Each year, dozens come to the museum for the two-day competition and sit on the grass to watch and cheer the many hoop dancers competing.
Dancers are judged on a variety of skills. A Tiny Tot division took place early during the first day with a couple dozen participants and each received a prize while other divisions spread over the two days. For a list of all winners, visit the Heard Museum website or Facebook page.
Eastern Band Cherokee and Chippewa-Cree Eddie Swimmer remembers the days he could count the number of competitors on two hands. Swimmer was the first World Champion Hoop dancer in 1991, back when the event was at the New Mexico State Fair before relocating to the Heard Museum. That year, Swimmer said seven competed for the top prize. Swimmer was a judge this year and was asked to bring his hoops when he traveled to Phoenix. During the second day’s lunch break, Swimmer took a break from his judging seat and hoop danced alone for a few minutes before being joined by a dozen or so former world hoop dance champions.
“It’s just amazing to see how it’s grown,” Swimmer said.
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego was a guest speaker the first day and shared a few words before the start of the competition.
“I wanted to extend a particular welcome to all the people competing, whether you come from Canada or a member of our American Indian community locally. We are so honored to have you here. Phoenix prides itself as a city that celebrates our heritage and is built on a strong value of culture and you see that today.”
Pojoaque Pueblo citizens Kwami Lopez, 15 and her sister P’oeTsire Lopez, 12, competed in the teen and youth competition. Both are members of the Pueblo of Pojoaque Youth hoop Dancers out of New Mexico. The sisters have competed in the event a few times.
Kwami said she dances for her ancestors and the people at her pueblo.
“Knowing they might not be here physically, but they are here spiritually and inside of us,” she said. “I think of it as a blessing because you are honoring them everyday, even if you don’t dance. They helped us become who we are.”
Another young dancer and past youth world champion, RJ Lopez, 13, comes from a family of championship hoop dancing. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community hoop dancer is the nephew of Tony and and Kevin Duncan, both known for their hoop dancing skills. Lopez said he practices with his uncles and grandma weeks before the competition.
“We practice weeks before, coming up with a good routine,” Lopez said.
Tony Duncan, a multiple time world hoop dance champion, was one of the many hoop dancers that reached out to Wells to offer hoop dance regalia.
Wells’ friend and Navajo hoop dancer Lane Jensen gifted him two outfits, which Wells used to compete in this year’s event. Wells didn’t have an update on his missing regalia and hopes that it will be found one day.
Wells didn’t reach the final round this year, but said he always enjoys his time in Phoenix because the competition is like a big family reunion with all the familiar faces.
“A couple people came up to me and said it’s amazing that you still came down and carried on,” Wells said. “Some of the younger dancers admired that I didn’t stop or give up. I told them that any little struggle or anything you want to succeed in life, there will be hurdles and to continue to work hard.”