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July 2013 - The Dancing Feet of the Powwow

July 2013 - The Dancing Feet of the Powwow

The long prairie grass swayed in the hot summer sun. The young American Indian man, fasting and praying as he watched the grass dance in the wind, soon saw himself dancing in a similar manner. But how could this be, since he had been born without the full use of his legs? The Medicine Man in his village interpreted his vision. The boy asked his mother to make an outfit in which to dance using the prairie grass. He was covered from shoulder to ankle with long, thick, bright multi-colored fringes made of yarn or ribbon. He showed his father how he would dance, using much shoulder, arm and head movements. His footwork would appear like he was stumbling. A song was composed for him. He showed the village his style of dance.

This is how the grass dance originated, according to American Indians in the Northern Plains.

The grass dance is one of the dance styles common at a modern powwow.

While a powwow is defined as a gathering of American Indians and can take place for many reasons, it is often associated with dance.

Each session of a wacipi (the Lakota word for powwow, pronounced “wah chee pea”) begins with the grand entry. The eagle staff and various flags lead the way into the dance arena. The flags represent nations, families and communities. When the eagle staff is brought into the area, powwow etiquette requires spectators to stand and remove their hats in respect. Wacipi are open to visitors, but everyone attending should follow proper etiquette.

“Veterans have an integral part in powwows as they are honored by leading the dancers into the arena,” said Francis Whitebird of Saint Francis, an Indian educator and former director of the South Dakota Office of Tribal Relations.

Once all the dancers are in the dance arena and while the spectators are still standing, the flags are raised and the flag song is sung. This is followed by a veterans honoring song.

The master of ceremonies is the voice of the wacipi. This person keeps the singers, dancers and the general public informed as to what is happening.

The oldest form of dancing is the traditional dance. The men danced in the middle of the dance arena and the women stood on the side, according to Whitebird.

“In the mid to late 1950s, the shawl dance for women and the fancy dance for the men made their appearance in Lakota country. The women joined the men and danced in the middle of the dance area,” he said.

The men’s northern traditional style of dance was a form of storytelling in which each warrior acted out deeds committed during a battle or hunt.

Men’s fancy dance is the most contemporary style of dance. It is the most strenuous and athletic of the dances. The dance is fast and features jumps and twirling. The regalia is said to represent the rainbow spirits with its bright colors and flying feathers and ribbon.

The women’s traditional dance requires enormous stamina, concentration and grace. Dancers stand on the outer edge of the dance arena. They barely move their feet and gently bend their knees as they move up and down in rhythm with the drum.

Originating with the Ojibwe, the women’s jingle dress dance is a healing dance. According to one legend about the jingle dress, a medicine man was given a vision in which he saw his daughter and three of her friends dancing in dresses adorned with “jingles.” The jingle dress is made of a cloth, velvet or leather base adorned with jingles made out of a shiny metal, usually chewing tobacco lids. The dance is in a “side-step” fashion designed to incorporate the sound of the jingles by allowing them to move.

The fancy shawl dance is the most modern of the women’s dance styles. It began when women started wearing their shawls instead of draping them over their arms when dressed in their regalia. Fancy does not refer to the shawl, but to the foot work which involves kicks, twirls and fast movement.

The music in a wacipi comes primarily from the drum groups who circle the arena and play large, specially designed drums and sing traditional songs.

The clothing worn by dancers is referred to as regalia, never costumes. Good guests at a wacipi do not touch the dancers’ regalia. The master of ceremonies will make announcements about etiquette and the types of dances being performed.

“Indian dancing almost faded out until contest dancing appeared in the mid-1960s. The interest in money and dancing caught like wildfire and a resurgence in dancing occurred,” Whitebird said.

What one sees at a powwow are dancing feet, colorful regalia and smiling faces.

Information about powwows in South Dakota can be found at the South Dakota Department of Tourism’s website,

This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society. Find us on the web at Contact us at to submit a story idea.