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By Ernest Thompson Seton

Indian Dancing

When our women cut off their skirts and threw away their corsets, they entered a new and saner epoch of life and joy. They raised not only themselves, but their offspring and the whole nation, to a higher level of physical vigor and morality.

It is very hard for the present generation to realize the deplorable--yes, the shocking--condition of women in the mid-Victorian period.  Woman was then assumed to be an angel; she had no legs, functions, or emotions,--she was supposed to be solid from the waist down.  The crinoline came at the climax of these follies.  For a woman to show a hint of an ankle was to be socially and eternally damned.

The theory was, further, that every woman had a wasp waist and a small, pointed foot.  To keep the feminine world in line with these ideals, each woman was panoplied in a steel corset that squeezed the body to the desired shape at the expense of her vital organs.  Her foot was forced into an excruciatingly hard shoe of metal and leather that crushed it out of all natural form into a sharp pointed mangled remains, atrophied, nearly useless as a foot, loathsome with corns and agonized with bunions.

And what was the sum total of result?  Every woman was more or less of an invalid,--not only was, but persistently claimed and announced it.  The robust health of the working woman was despised as vulgar; and all women were divided into delicate and indelicate.  Swooning was taught in the young ladies' seminaries as a necessary and important activity.  Languishing Lydia was the ideal; and no woman of good social standing could walk a mile or swim a stroke.  In order to further guarantee her helplessness, every woman of any position dragged a dress train, even in the streets, amid the horse-filth of the roadway.

The race might well have been nipped out by these suicidal obsessions.  But it was saved, we believe, by the swamping influence of the athletic other sex, and the reinvigorating blood of the peasant class inevitably working upward, as the fashionable families killed themselves off.

These demoralizing ideals of life and clothing were all-powerful in the Victorian epoch.  The first little gap in their entrenched position was made by the game of tennis.

But the real defeat was inflicted by the bicycle.  About 1890, all the world went wheeling-mad.  Girls wanted to go a-wheeling with their brothers,--but could not in long trailing garments.  Various devices were produced to meet the difficulty, but nothing satisfactory till, in France, the bicyclettes, or knickers for girls, were boldly proclaimed and worn.  In spite of a storm of indignation from intrenched prudery, they were commercially launched here; backed by commonsense and by hygiene, they passed all the stages of shock, wrath, scorn and ridicule and were at last quietly accepted.

The abandonment of corsets, tight shoes, and impossible collars, came in quick succession.  Woman was admitted to have legs, functions, and emotions, just as much as her brother.  The clothing reform was well on the way; and, for the first time in modern history, woman was blessed with the robust health that had hitherto been considered the exclusive birthright of her brothers.

Now, we were confronted with a new situation, a new thought.  It is a law of nature that sentient, highly organized beings, when blessed with abundant physical vigor, joy, and opportunity, must express their exhilaration in a dance, preferably to music; but always an energetic, rhythmic dance.

The new-found vigor of our females and the thereby increased vigor of our males, with growing insistence demanded general and vigorous dancing.  We had, of course, such purely artificial things as the minuet, quadrille, etc., and the waltz still under ban.  But none of these were athletic, rhythmic exercise, possible for all, easily, and at almost any time.

Two responses appeared to meet the demand-the fox-trot and its kind from South America, and the Greek dancing of the Duncan School.  The unloveliness of the first group, with its over-emphasis on sex, has gradually abolished it.  The Greek dances, although beautiful, poetic, and admirable, were the rare activity of a trained few; furthermore, although graceful posing, they never were vigorous, rhythmic exercise.   They still are, perforce, the activity of the more or less professional.

Later came the Charleston and Black Bottom, invented by a race that, at least, had rhythm, and sought for exercise with musical accompaniment.  But, for obvious reasons, these too have passed away.

Folk dancing of the European nations was revived; but has not been a complete success, because the dances are either too complex, too childish, or call for too much space and preparation.  Furthermore there is little or no appeal to the imagination.

Not one of these types of dancing fills the bill.

Where are we to find the much needed leader in acceptable dancing?  In my opinion, that leader is the North American Indian.  Nationally speaking, he is the best dancer in the world today.  That does not mean that he is better than our professional stage dancers --undoubtedly, they are the best.  But these are not national; they are specially gifted groups selected and trained.

I have seen Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, Scottish, Irish, and English dances, both in their homes and in their stage presentation.  And still I affirm, without fear of challenge, that better than any of these as a dancer is the North American Indian.  His dancing is clean, beautiful, dramatic, interpretive, rhythmic exercise; it is possible for all, and is meritorious according to the gift of the dancer.   But always it is in some degree, good,--it is wonderful, beautiful exercise.

More than any other, it carries us out of doors; and finds its best presentation in the camp life that is happily becoming a dominating mode in our present thought.

Calling for, and exhibiting more than any other dancing the perfection of physique, it is helping us to regain the noblest ideals of outdoor life that did so much for ancient Greece.

Appealing to the imagination as well as to the muscles, it is, in the highest sense, educational.  Untainted with sex, hallowed always by a thought of prayer, and vivid with rejoicing, it is, above all, the exercise of a clean people, voicing their gladness as a conscious, harmonious part of the joyous sunlit world.

Can one feel so about any of our modern dances?  Imagine a waltz or a polka in camp about the sacred fire.  When King David "danced with all his might" about the Ark of the Lord, he certainly did not dance a minuet or a schottische, but a joyous, ecstatic, spiritual rhythm, that was in all its elements, an Indian dance.

It was with a view to perpetuating these human rhythms for our own people, that the many expeditions, especially that of 1927, were made into the Indian world, the condensed results of which are offered in the present volume.

Rhythm of the Redman






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[ Introduction ] Why Dance? ] Fundamental Steps ] List of Dances ] List of Illustrations ] Songs According to Tribes ]

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Native Skills ] Totem Poles ] Indian Sign Language ] Indian Ceremonies ] Indian Dance ] Indian Songs ] Birch Bark Dances ] Birch Bark Songs ] Birch Bark Plays ] Indian Games for Boys ]

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Last modified: October 15, 2016.