The magic of hoop dancers will be in the spotlight this weekend at the World Championship of Hoop Dancing event in Phoenix, Arizona as tribal dance competitors from across the U.S. and Canada vie for top honors and $30,000 in prize money.
With participants arriving from all over Indian Country, event coordinator Jaclyn Roessel expects lots of diversity, “perhaps 30 different nations from all over the U.S. and Canada.”
Last year’s champion,25-year-old Nakota LaRance (Hopi/Tewa/Assiniboine) pulled an upset when he beat seven-time winner and defending champion Derrick Suwaima Davis (Hopi/Choctaw) by a mere six points. Since then, LaRance, a master of the five-hoop performance, has been working on his routine to again let his artistry speak for him in a possible rematch.
Davis has been quoted as saying, “Why stop at seven titles? Maybe I’ll go for 10 before I retire.”
LaRance notes, “Derrick taught me my whole routine when I was a kid. But those teaching days are far behind.”
As the event begins its second quarter-century of drawing competitors and crowds (5,000 visitors each year), the two-day event at Heard Museum brings together the best of the best.
The World Championship Hoop Dance Contest started in 1991 at the New Mexico State Fair’s Indian Village. The top prize was $200. The following year, competition was relocated to the Heard and Davis was a participant. “I had only five hoops and everybody else had more. I was intimidated and felt like leaving before I embarrassed myself.” But Davis stayed, competed, and placed third.
The long-standing tradition of hoop dancing can involve the use of as many as 50 hoops. During their sacred performances, hoop dancers tell stories by creating symbols and depicting animals with their hoops. The transitions from mage to image by the most talented dancers are seamless and inspiring.
“We look for timing and rhythm and how the dancers coordinate with the drum,” says Navajo hoop dancing Judge Victor Bob. “We watch for speed, precision, creativity and showmanship, lots of little things going on simultaneously. We also keep an eye on the hoop forms they make. Things don’t have to be absolutely perfect as long as the dance is completed, nothing gets dropped, and forms don’t fall apart before the end of the song.”
“Not only are we looking for the obvious, but the intangibles too, like how well the crowd reacts to a performer’s moves,” adds fellow judge Jocy Bird (Mandan/Hidatsa).
The stories of the hoop dance origin are many. The people of Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, historically performed a dance in which the dancer passed through a 24-inch diameter circular willow hoop. In the Anishinaabe culture, the dancer told stories with hoops as a way to share messages with the Creator. Some populations have use hoop dancing as a part of healing as the circles are regarded as sacred.
In contemporary performances, each hoop dancer presents aspects of their own tribal ancestry.
When using the hoops to tell a story, which are made from reeds or willow branches and constructed to interlock and extended from the dancer’s body – they can be used and held in a way to form appendages such as wings or tails. Hoops are shaped to create a variety of designs, shapes or formations that represent symbols, storytelling elements, or animals ranging from the butterfly and eagle to the snake and coyote.
Originally the dances were male-only, but in recent years women have become active participants. Age is not a handicap either. Rito Lopez (Pima/Apache), then six years old, recently hooped his way into the Youth Division winners circle.
“This event is a way to get up close and personal with a truly unique Native American sport,” says Heard Museum communications manager Debra Krol (Xolon/Salinan). “The rules are simple, the dancers accessible, and you get to see a lot of different native cultures represented.”
Adds coordinator Roessel: “The sheer athleticism through creativity is unparalleled. Repeat visitors are always surprised, and first-time visitors are left in awe.”