The Pow Wow - First Nation Pow Wow Dances

June 25, 2013

feather pow wow dancer
Bob Joseph
This is the third in our three part series on the First Nation pow wow. The first was a primer, the second was about the all important protocol, and in this article we have brief descriptions of some of the common elements and dances of pow wows.

The Master of Ceremony is the person responsible for keeping the performers on schedule and the visitors aware of which group is drumming or dancing, to provide background information on the dancers and drums, and to generally keep the event on track, and everyone entertained.

The Grand Entry and prayer are traditionally the opening events of a pow wow. Frequently military veterans lead the Grand Entry, followed by the head dancers, the rest of the dancers, all of whom are drummed in by the host drum. The Grand Entry is sacred so listen carefully to the MC to find out the protocol regarding filming or photography.

Please keep in mind that pow wows are as individual as the Nations that host them, and that not all dances are performed at all pow wows. While there are regionally specific dances, there are some dances that are typically performed at most pow wows. Most pow wows have open dances for all to join in.

Dances for men include:

Traditional - as the name implies, this dance involves traditional, tight steps and traditional.

Fancy (Dance or Feather) - this is the show stopper as the steps are dramatic and the regalia is spectacular - elaborate and brilliantly coloured, although non-traditional.

Grass - regalia in this dance features streaming fringes to mimic grass billowing in the wind; the steps are more involved than in the traditional dance but less dramatic than those involved in the Fancy or Feather Fancy Dance.

Dances for women include:

Traditional - originally, women performed minimal dance movements on the peripheral of the circle; the understatement of the movements in this dance reflects this history.

Jingle Dress - the dresses for this dance include sometimes hundreds of metal cones - some dresses feature a cone for every day of the year. This dance is a feast of visual and audio delights.

Fancy Shawl - this dance, which emulates the butterfly, is very colourful and beautiful. The dancers, moving to a very fast beat, use their beautifully beaded shawls to emulate the wings of a butterfly.

Drums provide the pulse of the pow wow. There is usually a host drum, consisting of up to eight men, and guest drums. Drummers do not necessarily wear traditional regalia, they may just wear street clothes. At outdoor pow wows, the drum groups are frequently under a tent as the drums have to be protected from moisture and temperature fluctuations.

While the drum helps the dancers keep beat, it is the songs, and the range of pitches, that provide the melody the dancers focus on and meld their dance to.

The dances are mesmerizing, the regalia is breathtaking, and the drumming is thrilling - and all that beauty, skill and precision is driven by time honoured traditions.

Pow wows are held right across North America from spring until fall - if there is one near you, check it out and send us some pictures.

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Topics: Indigenous Arts and Culture

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