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Native American Dance Steps
By Bessie Evans, May G. Evans
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
BESIDES THE STEPS used in the complete dances or sections of dances described later, in Part Three, some characteristic Indian dance steps are herein analyzed. A few of these steps are compared, very briefly, with dance steps of some other races or nations; including that most highly developed and elaborate dance-art of the white race—the ballet, or "toe-dancing," of (notably) Italy, France, and Russia; and, through widespread adoption, of other European countries and the United States. The ballet form, in the niceties of its crystallized, traditional technique and of its exquisite though often artificial movements, probably offers the most striking contrast of all to the more natural expression of Indian dance-art—a case of the cultured versus the primitive. Since, owing to the limitations of the human frame, only a moderate number of movements are possible to it, whatever the race or the condition, there will, naturally, be found points of similarity even in these two extremes. And more especially so because of the fact that the orthodox ballet bears, in line, posture, and movement, unmistakable evidence that it too had its remote origin in a freer, more natural "out-door" style of dance— that of the ancient Greeks.
It is by no means the object, in this short, fragmentary treatise, to do more than barely touch on such comparisons and analogies; and that, merely by way of suggesting that this phase of the subject might possibly prove worthy of research in the future. The present brief—even hasty—excursion into so large and uncultivated a field can do no more than break ground at a single point. Even this slight jaunt, however, serves to show that Indian dancing is a distinctive and highly specialized form.
The three principal varieties of dancing have been concisely defined by Ethel L. Urlin (Dancing, Ancient and Modern) as: "(1) Dancing in which the legs are chiefly made use of, prevailing in Europe generally, and finding its most pronounced form in the orthodox ballet. (2) Dancing in which the arms and hands are chiefly used, carried to high perfection by the Javanese and also in Japan. (3) Dancing in which the muscles of the body play the chief part, as seen in Africa and Western Asia."
These elements are found also in combination in many dance-forms. In Spanish dancing, for example, arms, hands, head, torso, legs, and feet are strikingly in evidence; not to speak of very characteristic facial expression.
To none of the forms described does the dancing of the North American Indian, man or woman, seem specifically to belong. There are points of similarity, yes; but withal there is found in the dance-art of the Indian a mode that is peculiar to him. The chief element in the dancing of the tribes observed consists in foot and leg movements. Arm and hand movements are made in moderation, and at times are but a reflex action of the foot rhythms. The torso is for the greater part quiet, but relaxed. There is no change of facial expression. Exceptions to the foregoing generalizations were noted chiefly in the case of dances in which there is an element of dramatic impersonation; such, for example, as the wing-like motion of the arms in the Eagle Dance, or the realistic body movements in the burlesque "horse-tail" dance, or the plastic action of the Dog Dance.
In the tribes observed the men do the greater part of the dancing, though the women also often participate. In this respect the custom of the white race in modern times is reversed, at least in so far as the dance is considered in its use as a cultural and a dramatic art-form. In its social aspect—such as in the folk-dance and the ball-room dance of the white race—both sexes are equally represented. But in the dance in the schools and on the stage, girls and women now greatly preponderate, notwithstanding the late appearance—just two hundred and fifty years ago—of the female dancer in the European ballet. The Indian, in the importance he evidently attaches ballet. The Indian, in the importance he evidently attaches in his educational system to dancing by men, is but in line with some of the great nations and races of old—as witness, for example, the inclusion of dancing in the rigorous training that was given the stalwart Greek youths, that they might the better fulfill their part in the military, the religious, and the social scheme.
Since "the gesture of a people has a more ancient and unchanging history than its speech" (J. E. Crawford Flitch: Modern Dancing and Dancers), is it not conceivable that an exhaustive study of comparative dancing, with special reference to the art of the American Indian and other primitive races, might yield just as significant results as does the study of comparative philology?
* * *
For the purpose of conveying through the eye somewhat of the movement and posture of the Indian dancer, diagrams are given in the simple outline figures used in ballet directions—a "sign-language" familiar to students of dance-art. Now and then, for the sake of brevity or for lack of better words, terms relating to the orthodox ballet are employed in referring to some phases of Indian dancing. These terms, mostly in French or from the French, also form a sort of technical language among dance students—much as Italian terms are used by musicians, or Latin terms by the medical profession. The term "ballet" is herein used in its restricted sense as designating the form of dance-art commonly known as "toe-dancing"—not in its general sense as either a dance composition for stage performance or a corps of dancers in such a performance.
Some of the Indian steps given were observed in more than one tribe and in more than one kind of dance. The musical settings therefore differ with the various tribes or dances. This being the case, the steps are herein presented without special accompanying songs. Rhythm and speed play a large part, of course, in determining characteristic style and mood. Therefore in order to assist the student in forming an idea of the character of a given step, a simple rhythmic pattern and a metronomic indication of approximate speed are given when advisable. A more complete form of score—with tunes, words or syllables, drum-beat, and steps—is reserved for the dance examples in Part Three.
Indian dancing, like every other dance-form, can be reduced to a few basic movements. Besides the simplest form of step—such as is used in stepping forward or sidewise or backward—the basic Indian dance movements are the jump, the hop, the skip, and the tap. Since these terms are often used loosely or interchangeably in daily speech, they are herein, for the sake of clearness, restricted in meaning as follows:
Jump: a leap (a) from one foot to the other; or (b) on both feet simultaneously.
Hop: a short, brisk spring (a) on the ball of one foot; or (b) simultaneously on the toe of one foot and the ball of the other.
Skip: a step forward on one foot, followed immediately by a scraping or pushing or brushing movement of the same foot on the ground —designated brush-back, brush-forward, etc., as the case may be; then similar movements on the other foot; and so on.
Tap: a light touch, or pat, on the ground with either the ball or the toe of the foot.
(By the word toe, in Indian steps, is meant the part of the foot known in ballet parlance as the half-toe—not the point of the toe as in "toe-dancing.")
SPECIAL TERMS AND ABBREVIATIONS
In place: a step or steps made in one place—that is, without progressing forward, backward, or sidewise.
Flat: on the sole and heel of the foot.
Soft: relaxed, as opposed to tense, muscles.
Continue, with alternation: repetition of preceding movement, with alternating feet.
A HIGHLY CHARACTERISTIC MOVEMENT
The feet are parallel, and one foot is a few inches ahead of the other (see fig. 1a). To make the step: (1) jump on both feet flat (see fig. 1b); (2) jump on the left foot, holding the right foot up in front (see fig. 1c); (3) jump on both feet flat (see fig. 1d); (4) jump on the right foot, holding the left foot up in front (see fig. 1e); continue, with alternation.
Body and arm movements made with this step sometimes vary according to the fancy of the dancer. For example: some dancers exaggerate the movements, others move more calmly; some adopt a bending-forward posture (see fig. 1a), others stand upright. The step may be done either in place or with a slight forward progression. It is sometimes done slowly, but commonly it is done rapidly.
The step is remarkably effective and gives the impression of exceeding lightness on the part of the dancer. To the observer it seems as if the feet touch the ground only for the purpose of springing away or rebounding from it. It is almost, indeed, as if the dancer's initial movement consisted in rising lightly from the ground as if from a spring-board, rather than in jumpingon the ground. It is one of the most characteristic of the Indian dance steps observed. It is found in one or other of its forms in some war dances, as well as in dances of other types; such, for example, as the hoop dance of Taos Pueblo, and a "horse-tail" dance of Tesuque Pueblo that is said to be a burlesque of a Cheyenne dance.
The performance at Tesuque Pueblo of the last-mentioned-the "horse-tail," so to style it—was, by the way, an interesting example of the fact that the dignified Indian drops his reserve at times and manifestly enjoys his little joke. Each dancer's gay and elaborate costume included a horse-tail fastened to the belt in a way that enabled the wearer to operate it in truly comic fashion. The performance gave the impression of being a sort of go-as-you-please affair—not a set ceremonial. Indeed at times it seemed to have the spontaneity of improvisation. One dancer, for instance, rolled and squirmed on his back now and again; kicking up his legs the while like a fallen horse struggling to right itself—the kicks, by the way, were in perfect rhythm. Another varied his movements at intervals by dropping on his knees and quivering all over like a high-strung thoroughbred. Each dancer seemed to be interpreting the dance according to his own dramatic instinct. But for all the seeming impromptu, for all the prancing and kicking and wagging of tails, the unity of the whole as to rhythm and outline was not for a second marred.
Evidently the etiquette of the occasion demanded that the dancers go on dancing until the orchestra of drummers chose to stop drumming—and they did not choose to stop betimes! It was too good comedy to be cut short unduly. Time and again did the dancers come hopefully to a stop at what seemed a logical ending; only to be spurred on to further action by a fresh attack of the relentless drum-beat. The drummers were so convulsed with delight at the antics of the dancers that they kept on drumming until the spectators marvelled that the "horses" did not drop in their tracks from exhaustion.
An amplification of the characteristic step was noticed in the "horse-tail" dance, in addition to the original form. The first movement was the same —a jump on both feet. The second consisted of several quick jumps, instead of only one jump, on one foot (the free foot meanwhile being slightly advanced and the knee raised); followed by a repetition of these movements, with alternation. This variation is not unlike one of the figures of the Irish Jig. Oddly enough, the young Indian man who did the most brilliant dancing in the group—evidently a genius in the art—assumed with this step somewhat the same jaunty posture (hands on hips, elbows out, shoulders insolently forward) that is characteristic of the Irish Jig.
The skip in some form is found nearly everywhere. A skip step that is common to Indian tribes consists of two movements: (1) a step on the ball of, say, the right foot—the weight is now on the right foot, and the left foot is off the ground; (2) a brush-back on the right foot; then continuation, with alternation. The second movement—the brush-back—is the reverse of that in the skip step common to the white races, in which there is a brush-forward, instead of a brush-back, movement. Though both the white and the Indian skipper advance in the course of the skipping, the brush- back movement of the Indian causes him to advance much more slowly than does the white skipper with his corresponding brush-forward step. The Indian skipper achieves his advancement by making the forward thrust of the foot (preparatory to the step) cover a greater distance than that covered by the brush-back movement. So he gets there in the long run.
The two modes of skipping differ too in the esthetic effect on the observer; and probably also in the emotional reaction of the performer. The skipping of white folk is more "springy": the Indian's is closer to the ground. The former expresses the care-free elation of youth: the latter suggests a more mature, cautious, subtle mood, a more suppressed excitement. It is probably the very deliberateness of the Indian skip step—the inch-by-inch progress, the advancing and retreating body—that creates in the observer a feeling of greater dramatic suspense, of more inexorable oncoming, than could ever be conveyed by swift and unretarded motion.
Continuous jumping on both feet simultaneously seems common to many primitive races, including the Indian. Indian dancers seem able to jump on both feet—nat—without feeling the usual fatiguing effects of jarring movement; and this, notwithstanding that they often keep their dancing going for hours and hours at a time. The ballet dancer is trained to land on the ball of the foot, and with soft knee, in order to avoid jar. Even the most with soft knee, in order to avoid jar. Even the most arduously trained male ballet dancers—such as those in the great Russian companies, with whom many amazingly difficult forms of the jump are a highly developed art—could not compete with such endurance as that of the Indian dancer. Relaxation of body in dance movements is, also, specially characteristic of primitive man. This is probably the reason why the Indian can keep up his dancing so much longer at a time than can the white dance artist.
The feet are parallel; but one foot, say the right, is about four inches farther forward than the other. The knees are soft. To make the step: stand on both feet; then (1) jump forward a few inches on the back foot, say the left; (2) jump forward quickly a few inches on the right foot, bringing it to the same distance ahead of the left foot that it was at the start. The movement gives a slow forward progress and has a peculiar, jerky effect. Both feet are kept close to the ground during the movement.
JUMPING ON BOTH FEET SIMULTANEOUSLY (An Apache Devil-Dance Step)
The position is a low, squatting one, with both knees turned out. (See fig. 2a.) The jumps are in even rhythm and close to the ground. They are made with both feet simultaneously, and flat for the greater part. At intervals the dancer stretches out one leg and taps the top of the toe on the ground; twisting leg and foot so as to turn the sole of the foot upward—not an easy feat by any means. Meanwhile there is a simultaneous jumping movement on the other foot. (See fig. 2b.) These movements, from the Apache Devil Dance, are intentionally comic, grotesque; as are the costumes worn in the dance, which include black masks and huge head-dresses. The painted bodies of the dancers are nearly naked.
Excerpted from Native American Dance Steps by Bessie Evans, May G. Evans. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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