How to Recognize the Six Main Dance Styles at a Pow Wow, Part 1

Flickr/Smithsonian Institution/Cynthia Frankenburg / A Fancy Shawl dancer at the 2007 National Pow Wow, Washington D.C.

How to Recognize the Six Main Dance Styles at a Pow Wow, Part 1: Fancy Shawl Dance

Pow wows have been a part of American Indian culture since time immemorial, representing spiritual connection, healing and tradition. Each pow wow presents something unique to the hosting tribe, while offering traditional drum and dance competitions.

One aspect of the pow wow circuit that those in attendance should be aware of are the varieties of dances on display and how to distinguish them from one another.

For the next several days, ICTMN will run through each of the six styles—Fancy Shawl, Grass, Jingle, Men’s Fancy, and Men’s and Women’s Traditional—with a brief description of each and an example.

First up is the Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance style.

Said to imitate the movements of the butterfly, the fancy shawl dance is a relative newcomer to the pow wow circuit, starting in the 1950s and 1960s.

The intricate foot movement and dancer’s spinning show off the fringe on the shawl and the colors of the dancer’s outfit. Women wanted a new style of dance that would attract attention, much like the men’s fancy dance has done.

Light fabric is used in making these dresses to give the appearance that the dancer is floating on air – and to prevent the dancer from overheating. Many Fancy Shawl dancers do not wear leggings, but calf-high moccasins. The shawl is the most important part of the outfit and must stretch from hand to hand when the dancer’s arms are outstretched.

The Fancy Shawl dance was first called the Graceful Shawl Dance and did not involve fast movement or high stepping. Today, the dancer uses energetic twirls and high steps to a rapid drum beat.

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