DANCE | Larry Yazzie to be seen “Dancing Through LIfe” with Native Pride Dancers at the Cowles Center

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Native American dancer Larry Yazzie wowed audiences during the opening weekend of the Cowles Center, and on October 14 and 15, he returns to the Cowles with his company, Native Pride Dancers with a full evening of dancing that embraces various cultures within the Indigenous community in Dancing Through Life.

Yazzie, who is of Meskwaki and Navajo Nation heritage, has been dancing since he was seven years old, learning much of what he knows from his father, who was a champion Fancy Dancer in the 1940s and 50s. About 20 years ago, he began touring, using the dance floor as a platform for delivering a message about Native American culture. He wants people to respect Native American culture, and he hopes through his dancing he can break some of the stereotypes from Hollywood movies, books and other media.

Yazzie also wants to use the dances to inspire and motivate young Native Americans to learn about their culture. Indeed, he says that a number of young people have seen Yazzie’s troup dance and decided to learn themselves. “We have taken some young dancers under our wings,” he says. 

In Native Pride Dancers’ production of Dancing Through Life, performances are based on the Native American stories behind the dances, he says. For example, in the Men’s Traditional Dance, the dance depicts warriors going on a hunt, and mimicking members of then enemy tribe. In the Women’s Traditional Dance, the dancers utilize a much less vigorous movement, signifying women waiting at the camp for their warrior men to return home. “The Women’s Traditional Dance signifies the strength of women,” Yazzie says. “They are the backbone of our families, they provide for our families through cooking and sewing, and providing for our children.” 

Another dance that will be danced by local Ashinaabe dancer Jennifer Kappenman is the Jingle Dress dance, which comes from Ashinaabe culture. The story behind this dance involves a sick young girl who was ill amongst the Ashinaabe people, according to Yazzie. The medicine man had a vision to create a jingle dress for the small girl- though she was so ill she had to be carried out to the circle. The jingles are made out of snuff tins, and turned into cones, and sewed individually onto the dress, making a distinct sound. In the legend, the ill girl is given strength from the drum, and is eventually healed from the rhythm of the song, according to Yazzie.  

Shyama Priya Singh, a Cree dancer from First Nation’s People of Canada, will be dancing the Fancy Shawl dance, a more contemporary dance that was invented in the 1970s, according to Yazzie. The Fancy Shawl Dance movement was started among Native women, who aimed to create a more free style dance that had more movement than the traditional slower and stationary dances.

Yazzie himself will be performing the Men’s Fancy Dance, which was started in the 1920s and 1930s among the Tonka Nation of South Dakota, he says.

Yazzie says that while some of the dances are choreographed, improvisation is also used. “It’s based on how we feel,” he says. “For a lot of the dances, the feeling of the song move the spirit…it’s more spiritual.” 

Yazzie was approached last year to conduct learning workshops at the Cowles, and then was asked to be a part of the opening ceremonies because Executive Director Frank Sonntag wanted to include a Native American dancer to open up the space, honoring the Native American communities, Yazzie says.

Yazzie says the Cowles Center is “absolutely beautiful,” and the space has a particular intimacy with the audience. “To me as a dancer, when you feel the energy from the audience, it makes you dance harder,” he says. 

Also dancing in the show will be Lane Jensen, a Hoop Dancer from Phoenix, Arizona (who is Navajo) as well as Arlan Whitebreast, a Grass Dancer. Reuben Crowfeather, young Gavino Limon and Joe Arpishon will be dancing the Men’s Traditional Dance, and actor Cochise Anderson will be narrating the stories behind the dances. There will also be plenty of audience participation, including segments where some audience members will get to come on stage and see what it feels like to dance to the rhythm of the drum, Yazzie says.