To the Beat of Different Drums, American Indian Dancers Bring An Old Heritage to a New World
Onstage they bring the spirits of the buffalo and the eagle to life. Wearing dazzling hand-beaded, feathered costumes and playing drums and pipes, they dance homages to rainbows, gourds, butterflies, grass. And wherever they go, the leaping, stomping American Indian Dance Theatre draws raves. "They astonished us with the elegance of their dancing," reported France's Le Figaro, and Clive Barnes of the New York Post hailed their "transcendent spirituality." Fresh from Europe—they have gone as far afield as Japan and Yemen—the two-year-old company is now embarking on a four-week tour of the Eastern U.S., and on Feb. 2 it will make its one-hour debut on PBS's Dance in America. "It's the first time real Native American songs and dances have been featured on national TV," says Hanay Geiogamah, a Kiowa-Delaware professor of Indian Studies at UCLA and the group's co-founder.
"We've had to do some theatricalization and condensation," Geiogamah, 43, concedes of the program. "The dances at powwows can go on for five hours." Yet the dances—and the feelings—remain totally authentic. "I've been asked to sing songs of other tribes," says lead singer Arlie Neskahi, 32, a Navajo, "and I've had to say, 'I'm sorry, I can't, unless I've been given the right to sing it by those people.' " Says Philip Kaiyou, 33, a Shoshone-Bannock: "Our dance is real to us. We think about those animals whose skins we're wearing."
Founded in Colorado Springs by Geiogamah and Broadway producer Barbara Schwei, the group has 24 dancers from 20 tribes; to find them, Geiogamah and Schwei spent a year scouting every major Indian dance competition in the U.S. and Canada. The dancers range in age from 8 to 61 and include a fireman, a drug counselor, two beauty queens and a silversmith—as well as several people who had never been on a plane until they joined.
Marty Pinnecoose, 31, is a Southern Ute who lives in Oregon, sports an American Ironworker baseball cap atop his twin braids when off duty and honed his sure step while walking steel beams hundreds of feet in the air. "Steel was my life," he says. "My dancing is first now, but when I'm not on the road, I'll go back to hanging steel for $25 an hour." His new career may actually be more dangerous. "I once got hit by a beam, but I just got bruised," he says. "Dancing's tough—we get shin splints and tiny stress fractures."
It may be hard on the feet but it is easy on the soul. "We believe in our traditions," says Pinnecoose. "That's where we get our feeling for dance. We can't live without it Our spirit would die."
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