A new kind of Native American dance troupe


One day in October, dancer Kenneth Shirley received a message from Injury Reserve, a hip-hop group he had befriended in Phoenix, where he grew up and still lives. The group were performing in Manhattan and had noticed Shirley’s Instagram posts that he was also on the east coast. Would he like to come to the show as a guest?

Yes, he replied, even if that meant a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Jacob’s Pillow, the Massachusetts dance center where he and the band he leads., Aboriginal business, had a rehearsal residence. But he also had another idea: since it was Indigenous Peoples Day on October 11, would Injury Reserve like his troupe to do a set?

And so, at the Bowery Ballroom that night, an audience waiting for some rap and maybe a mosh pit opened a circle on the floor so that Shirley and her team, Native Americans from several tribes, had some space. . Adorned with multicolored beads, bells and huge feathered bustles, accompanied by flute, drum and song, they did a fancy dance, a jingle dance, a prairie chicken dance. Before kaleidoscopically juggling up to 11 hoops, Shirley’s colleague Jorge Gonzales-Zuniga Jr. of the Pima tribe of Salt River, crowd-surfed from the stage.

“It was a rock star moment,” Shirley said in a pizza interview a week later, savoring the way the audience broke. It’s the kind of answer he’s always looking for, the kind he encourages in all of his shows by taking the mic and urging people to “make some noise.”

“We’ve been to concerts all of our lives,” he said of himself and his band. “We love to rock the crowd. Like at Coachella, with thousands of people screaming, we want that on our shows.

It’s a way for Indigenous Enterprise members, almost all in their early to mid-twenties, to update what a Native American dance troupe can be.

Since its founding six years ago, the group has quickly gained attention: they made an appearance in the 2016 music video. “Stand Up / Stand N Rock” with Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas and played at the Sydney Opera House in 2019. In the past year, Indigenous Enterprise entered the televised competition “Dance world” in President Biden’s virtual inauguration parade and in the NBA Finals. From Tuesday to November 14, the company performs “Indigenous liberation”, a new show, at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan.

But if the troupe and its members are young, its practices are deeply rooted. Most of the dancers were introduced to the traditions from an early age, while attending pow-wow, multi-tribal gatherings of Indigenous people that occur regularly in North America.

Shirley, who is Navajo, was taken to powwows by her mother, a Fancy Shawl dancer. He chose his specialty, Fancy Dance – an athletic style done in multiple feather moves – because it was the fastest. He learned by watching dancers like his uncle Daryl Jack, who gifted him his first badges, and by studying powwow videos on repeat. Eventually he started competing and winning cash prizes – although, he stressed, money isn’t the issue.

“Competitive powwow dance has become an Aboriginal sport,” Aboriginal Enterprise dancer Red Elk of Acosia noted. She should know. For 10 years she rode the powwow trail, which she likens to a rodeo circuit, full time, living in a van and tipi or pop-up trailer, hitting a different powwow each time. weekend. Now 42 – and called “aunt” by Shirley and the younger members – she was and still is a champion, winning her category, Jingle Dance, in the biggest powwows year after year.

For this dance, women wear dresses adorned with rows of jingling metal cones. As Red Elk tells the story, the practice began around the time of the Spanish Flu of 1918. A young girl from the Ojibwe tribe of the Great Lakes region was ill and her father was taken, in a vision, to Northern Lights and received as a gift their healing sound, the electric vibration that could be reproduced by the jingle equipped Robes. The dance healed the young girl and the ceremony spread.

The Jingle Dance had a different healing effect on Red Elk. As a teenage girl from the Umatilla tribe in Oregon, she said, she was rebellious and on a downward spiral – insecure with scars from a fire, ashamed of being native. But when she was 16, when she first danced at a powwow, she thought, “This is where I’m supposed to be” and started to cry. “Everyone said, ‘You make us proud’, and that made me proud,” she said. “It gave me an identity.”

Most powwow dances are healing dances. This is how the members of the Indigenous Enterprise think of them – whether it is as what Shirley called “stress relief” or in the sense that Tyrenn Lodgepole, who is Navajo, was taught by those who l ‘initiated at the Prairie Chicken Dance: “dancing for those who cannot dance, with a prayer in mind. (Lately, Red Elk has become in high demand as a powwow yoga teacher, which she said she developed to “help my people heal.”)

Based on such traditions, the dances, which have a strong improvisational component, are also evolving. Red Elk’s precise category is “Contemporary Jingle,” with much more elaborate footwork and spatial patterns. It is not without controversy. Red Elk noted that people often complain that the dancers get too fancy. “But we still pray,” she said, “we still feel the spirit.”

When Indigenous Enterprise appeared on “World of Dance,” Shirley described the band’s style as “Native American with a bit of hip-hop”. And the influence of hip-hop is noticeable in the footwork and the bounce, but especially in the attitude.

The idea for the company came the summer before Shirley’s first year of film studies at Arizona State University, when a friend found her a job as a dancer in “Spirit of the Mist” an aboriginal dance performance near Niagara Falls, NY “I was blown away by the number of people we were dancing for and paying me to do it,” he said.

When he got home he thought, “Why don’t we start our own thing?” “, he said. He got Lodgepole and a few other friends together and started doing presentations for local elementary schools and community colleges during Native American Heritage Month in November, posting on social media all the time.

These posts caught the attention of Taboo, who recruited Indigenous Enterprise for the “Stand Up / Stand N Rock” video in support of the Dakota Access Pipeline shutdown. “Kenneth is a young visionary, an entrepreneur, a businessman,” Taboo said in an interview. “It reminds me of myself and my team, starting as a teenager making music for the world.”

“They educate,” said Taboo, who identifies as Native American and Mexican, “erasing misconceptions about what a Native is today. But that’s not demeaning or blaming you. No, c is like, ‘Why don’t you come along with us and learn together?’ “

Increasing the representation of Native Americans is a goal. Growing up, Shirley felt a lack of it. “We want to be seen and for indigenous children to see that they are included,” he said. Or, from another perspective, as Lodgepole put it, “People only know Peter Pan and Pocahontas, and it feels good to show off some authentic and real native culture in the flesh.

Shirley and Lodgepole see themselves as part of a “renaissance of native designers”, as the creators of the TV show “Reservation Dogs”. Taboo – who brought in Shirley as a consultant on the new Marvel comic book “Ghost Rider: Kushala” – agreed, “It’s a moment that has turned into an authentic representational movement.”

Performing for a non-native audience is easy, said Shirley, “When we’re wrong, they don’t even know it. Sometimes gentle corrections are needed, such as when non-natives refer to the dancers’ costumes, usually made by family members. (A T-shirt in the Indigenous Enterprise clothing line – it’s not just a dance company – associates photos of headdresses with the slogan “Not a costume.” “)

“It’s not Halloween,” Shirley said. “We don’t pretend to be indigenous. When I wear my badges, I feel more like myself.

The dress Red Elk wears to perform the Buckskin Dance is over 100 years old; it is one of the dresses buried in the days when Indigenous dances, along with other aspects of Indigenous culture, were outlawed and suppressed. “Dancing in there on a New York stage gives me goosebumps,” she said.

The Joyce’s program isn’t the company’s first stage show, but “the first that we’ve, like, rehearsed and prepared for,” Shirley said.

“Our type of dance is freestyle,” Lodgepole added. “We usually get the crowd excited, discuss the origin of the dance and go.”

This time, drawing on the resources of Joyce and Jacob’s Pillow, they’re trying something a little more elaborate. At the start of the show, before each champion demonstrates a specialty, the origin story of this dance is told in voiceover, with animation – a sort of technologically advanced return to the theatrical mode of older Indigenous troupes like Native American dance theater.

Then Shirley takes the mic and the atmosphere is more like the Bowery Ballroom than most shows at theaters like the Joyce, but also more like a powwow. The respectful response is to make noise.

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