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How the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest Keeps Traditions Alive

By Asonta Benetti

Apr 13, 2022

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Dancer Tony Duncan at this year's contest, which features contestants from Canada and the United States.

Photo by Asonta Benetti

Dancer Tony Duncan at this year's contest, which features contestants from Canada and the United States.

With hoops, fancy footwork, and traditional regalia, 100 contestants from 30 tribes across North America are commemorating Native history—and dancing to win—at the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest.

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The sounds of rhythmic drumming, the jingle of bells, and a throaty, traditional song carry over the grassy slopes of the amphitheater at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. Spectators fill the seats, fixated on a man dancing on the packed dirt of the performance area at the center. His clothes are embellished with brilliant beadwork—the blue, red, and orange hues decorating his vest and headpiece glint in the sun. Moving nimbly in and out of brightly colored hoops, he interlocks them across his body to mimic the outstretched wings of an eagle before deftly forming the shape of a globe, the Earth, which he then bears upwards toward the sky. This is the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest, which has been held at the Heard Museum for the last 32 years, one of its most popular events.

This March, more than 5,000 people came to watch 100 contestants dance at the competition during two days. Throughout the contest, participants from about 30 different American Indian and First Nations tribes across North America can strut their stuff for up to seven minutes, all while craftily manipulating their chosen number of hoops into a dazzling array of forms, including animals and insects.

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The World Championship Hoop Dance Contest involves three rounds of judging, with four divisions that award cash prizes, including a grand prize of $5,000 for the adult division winner. While other Native American events, like the Gathering of Nations (April 28–30) and the Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial (scheduled to take place August 4–14), may feature other types of traditional dance among the festivities, the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest is the only one in the country to focus solely on hoop dancing for both men and women. 

Contestant ShanDien LaRance comes from a family of enthusiastic hoop dancers.

The history of hoop dancing is a little muddled—many North American tribes have laid claim to the dance’s origins throughout the years. But traditionally, it was used by medicine men during healing ceremonies, with the hoops representing the never-ending circle of life. During the 1930s, a Jemez Pueblo man named Tony Whitecloud revolutionized hoop dancing and helped transition the artform from its traditional origins to a form of artistic expression and entertainment. Soon, Whitecloud’s vision traveled across the nation and Native people began dancing with willow hoops to the tunes of intertribal music to commemorate and honor Indigenous history in gatherings that brought together people of diverse backgrounds and tribes. Infused with modern dance choices and inspiration, hoop dancing has become something entirely new—and enchanting. 

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When hoop dancing began gaining popularity in its early days, there were no gender-specific categories or styles; when the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest was created in 1991, women dancers advocated to not compete separately. While Lisa Odjig is the only female World Champion thus far, competitor ShanDien LaRance (who has Hopi, Tewa, Navajo, and Assiniboine heritage) is glad there aren’t segregated categories. “There’s something empowering about women owning the masculinity of the dance,” she says. “I’m really proud I compete at the same level as men and in the end, it’s our different dance styles that separate us.”

The competition isn’t purely dance—there’s music involved, too. Two groups of singers provide vocals during performances and are known as the northern (higher octave) or southern drums (lower octave). They alternate between contestants for the first two rounds. In the final round, contestants can choose which specific set of drum accompaniment they would like to dance to. “I grew up going to a lot of different powwows and celebrations with my family, so I was fortunate that we grew up dancing to both styles,” says 2020 World Champion Scott Sixkiller Sinquah (who is of Gila River, Pima, Hopi-Tewa, Cherokee, and Choctaw descent). “That said, I do enjoy dancing to the southern drum just a little bit more.”  

Dancer Talon Duncan forms an elaborate hoop shape during his performance.

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While there are four official divisions of competition at the World Championship, a fifth division dances but does not compete for scores: the Tiny Tots. Children up to age five perform in the first round of dances to show off their blossoming skills and their burgeoning footwork. It’s a fun way to kick off the competition, and it also serves as an early introduction to the art for kiddos. Hoop dancing is often a family affair and techniques and tips get passed down generationally. “I’ve been dancing for the last 21 years,” says LaRance. “I was taught by my older brother Nakotah, who held several World Champion titles. When I was 8, my parents told him it was time to start teaching me and my younger brother how to hoop dance.”

And for audience members, watching hoop dancing as a person with a non-Indigenous background is a way to get a glimpse of an intimate, but resilient community that has fought to preserve its history and roots in the face of years of persecution and discrimination. For this year’s reigning champion, Sampson Sixkiller Sinquah, Scott’s brother, the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest is one way to keep those traditions alive, all while educating participants. “I feel blessed to be able to share this dance with people from all backgrounds,” he says. “I was taught every time I dance, I’m not dancing for myself. We dance for all the ones who want to dance, everyone who cannot dance, but most importantly, for our ancestors who fought for us to be here.”

>>Next: Where to Try Native American Cuisine in the U.S.—and Why You Really Should Now

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