Why Dance?




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

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By Julia Seton

I have "seen the Red Man dancing
To sustain the World Throb penned
Alive between his ribs,
Not like a ballerina's, in her toes,
But next to where his life is,
Heart, breath, and bowels of him; moved
With the desire to make the world work well with God."

MARY AUSTIN, The American Rhythm.

Dancing is a universal instinct, a zoologic, a biologic impulse, found in animals as well as in man.  At first thought, one would say the higher animals; but most of us have watched the whirligig water-bugs on a hot summer afternoon, pirouetting wildly about, winding in and out among each other on the surface, in every direction and with the greatest speed, yet never colliding.  The mayflies, creatures of a day, enjoy their brief, merry love-dance in the air, and at its climax, die.

Among the birds, there are the sage grouse, the pinnated grouse, the cock o' the rock, the woodcock, the teals with their stately minuet, and the ruffed grouse which not only parades, but drums his own accompaniment.

A still more interesting incident is furnished by Ernest Thompson Seton in The Dance of the Pintailed Grouse.  I quote from his unpublished autobiography:

"In the summer of 1883, at Carberry, Manitoba, I had some fifteen baby Prairie Chickens hatched under a hen.  When they were two weeks old, we were visited by a cold driving storm of sleet.  The chicks were in danger of perishing.

"I brought the whole brood into the kitchen.  Keeping the hen in a cage close by, I put the chilled and cowering little things under the stove, on the tin which protected the floor.  Here, after half an hour, they were fully warmed.  They recovered quickly, fluffed out their feathers, preened their wings, and began to look very perky.

"Then the clouds broke.  For the first time that day, the sun shone brightly.  It came through the window, down onto the stove, and partly under, on the assembled brood.

"It seemed to stir them with some new thought and feeling of joy.  One of the tiny things, no bigger than a sparrow, lowered his head nearly to the tin, with beak out level, raised high the little pimple where in time his tail should be, spread out at each side his tiny wings; then ran across the tin, crowing a little bubbling crow, beating his wings, and stamping with his two pink feet so rapidly that it sounded like a small kettledrum.

"The result was electrical.  At once, the rest of them leaped up and at it.  Every one took the same position-head low, wings out, beating, tail-stump raised and violently vibrated, the feet pounding hard, as the little dancers crowed and careered in, about, over, and amid the otherscrowing, leaping, bounding, stamping, exactly as is done by the old birds on the dance hill at love-time.

"For a minute or more it lasted; then they seemed tired, and all sat down for a rest.

"In half an hour, they were at it again; and did it several times that day, more especially when the sun was on them, and they were warm and fed.

"Then I found that I could start them when the conditions were right, by rattling on the tin a tattoo with two fingers.  They responded almost invariably; during the three days that I had them in the house, I started them dancing many times for myself or the neighborhood to see.  A number of my friends made a buggy drive across country those days to come and see the tiny downlings 'do their war dance,' whenever I chose to start them by beating the drum.

"It is noteworthy that these chickens danced exactly as their parents do, without ever having seen those parents; therefore, the performance was wholly instinctive.   All--and undoubtedly both sexes were represented--danced with equal spirit.   It was not at the breeding season, and could not, in any sense, be said to have any sex urge.  It was evidently and unquestionably nothing more nor less than a true dance--a vigorous, rhythmic, athletic expression of health and joy."

Dance in the Animal World

So far, it is chiefly the birds that are credited with song and dance.  But added observations continually extend the field.  Many, if not all the higher animals have some related exercise.

You remember Kipling's elephant, which escaped from camp at night, and trotted on and on till he came to the appointed place of meeting.  Here he and his kind danced the greater part of the night--a true social gathering.  The story of Mowgli may be fiction; but there is good evidence that this incident is founded on fact.

The wapiti have been seen by several hunters to engage in a circle dance, which has no obvious explanation other than the pleasure of the motion.  They have been reported "in a band of from twelve to twenty . . . trotting quite rapidly, with occasional awkward plunges, in a circle perhaps thirty feet in diameter.  They were all going in the same direction as the hands of a watch" (H. W. Skinner, quoted by Ernest Thompson Seton in his Lives, III, p. 42).

The most remarkable of all, perhaps, is the Kanjo of the chimpanzees, described by R. L. Garner.  The chimpanzees select a spot in the jungle about two feet across, where the surface of the ground is peat.  They secure some clay along the banks of a nearby stream, carry it by hand, spread it over the place, and let it dry.  When all is hard, the chimpanzees gather in great numbers.  One or two violently beat this hard clay which gives out a loud sound.  The others "jump up and down in a wild and grotesque manner.  Some of them make long rolling sounds, as if trying to sing.   When one tires of beating the drum, another relieves him, and the festivities continue in this fashion for hours" (Gorillas and Chimpanzees, pp. S 9-60).

Dancing Among Natives

Among men, natives are nearly all great dancers, imitating every animal they know, and dancing out their own legends.  The South Sea Islanders, the Zulus, the negroes of Central Africa, and the native Australians, are all practicing it now exactly as it was in the earlier stages of every civilized race.  In its natural, primitive form, dancing is vigorous muscular action to vent emotion.  Originally, it was the natural expression of the basic impulses of a simple form of life.  Triumph, defeat, war, love, hate, desire, propitiation of the gods--all were danced by the hero or the tribe to the rhythm of beaten drums.

History of Dancing

The history of dancing goes back farther than we can accurately trace it.   But we do know that in very ancient times, in China, the spring was ushered in with dance and ritual; all boys after the age of thirteen were taught dancing as an important part of their education.

In Japan, in ancient Rome, in Egypt, and in Greece, dancing was a form of worship.   The old philosophers ranked it with poetry and drama.  The Spartans made it a compulsory part of the education of all children from the age of five.

At a very early period, the Hebrews gave dancing a high place in their ceremony of worship.  Moses bade the children of Israel to dance after the crossing of the Red Sea.  Miriam danced to a song of triumph, and David danced in a procession before the Ark of the Covenant.

Among the early Christians, it was universally introduced into religious services.   The bishops of those days led the sacred dance around the altar.

It has been shown that the choral processions, with all the added charm of costume and song, have had far more to do with Christianizing primitive tribes, than has preaching.

During the Dark Ages of history, dancing was taken under the protection of the Church, through which it survived during the greater part of a thousand years.  The vehicle which carried it through this period was the Spectacle and Miracle or Mystery plays.

After this, dancing gradually withdrew from the Church, until, under Louis XIV, it reached a high development as a secular and social amusement.

Value of Dancing

The power of the dance is universal, both in time and place.  It is confined to no one country of the world, to no period of ancient or modern history, and to no plane of human culture.

Its value has always been felt, though often used without conscious appreciation of its worth.  It is a powerful agency to conjure up emotion of one kind or another.   Ferocious war dances were practiced by savage tribes, in order to beget the war frenzy which should carry them irresistibly on to victory.  The dancing and spinning dervishes of the East hypnotize themselves with a delirium of physical excitement as a stepping stone to excesses of religious zeal and self-sacrifice.

I have frequently used dancing with classes of obstreperous children, to induce mental states more in harmony with my purposes of teaching.

There was a time when we had to fight for the principle that dancing was a desirable activity--essential, inevitable.  We had to argue for the right to manifest, or even to possess, the joy of living.  But that day is gone.   Psychologists and educators in all fields appreciate the power and necessity of dancing, wisely selected.  It is surely safe to say that the only persons who now disapprove of dancing, rightly inspired, are those who have never studied it, nor its reaction upon the physical, mental, spiritual and social well-being of the individual and group.

The problem now is what to select as the best kind of dancing for our developmental purpose.  To the outdoor educator, after nothing less than world-wide search, there can be no question that the ideal we seek is found in but one type of dancing-the dancing of the American Indian.

In the Redman's dance, or its adaptation, we find the physical exercise, the dramatic and imaginative possibilities, the impelling rhythm, and the picturesqueness, all combined, which the youth of our country are groping for m their blind way, among other schools of the art.

Indian Dancing

The importance of the dance in the life of the Indian is shown in the fact that his most elaborate ceremonies are commonly known as dances.

The Indians teach a child to dance as soon as it can be held erect, training it to lift its little feet with the motion of a dancer, and instilling a sense of rhythm from the very beginning. In the CORN DANCE which we witnessed at Santo Domingo, one of the chorus carried a baby, perhaps three months old, upright against him all day, as he kept vigorous time to the rhythm of the music.

In the early stages of thought, the dance was inseparable from the song or chant.   Now, the songs are usually sung by the men who play the accompanying instruments.   If the dancers move in a circle, the instruments are placed in the center of the circle; otherwise they are in a row at one side.

The dances are many; but each has its name, its steps and movements, and its special songs; each has its history, and usually its symbolism, though much of this latter has been lost in civilization and self-consciousness.

There are dances for men and women together; and other dances in which men and women dance by themselves; still others in which individuals dance alone.

There are comic dances, and dances in costumes that disguise the persons taking part.  Many employ masks symbolic in both form and color.  In some tribes feathers are the principal decoration; in some, the men dance nearly nude.

But, however diverse the dancing regalia may be, or how marked its absence, no matter what the purpose of the dance, or the steps used, the Indian dance always presents two characteristics-dramatic action and rhythmic precision.

Dances of great activity are done exclusively by the men.  Usually the dance is performed in a small space, or even on one spot.  The changes of attitude, however, are sometimes rapid and violent.  When the Indian dances, he dances with freedom, and every movement is vivid and natural.  This is, perhaps, the most significant difference between the dances of the Red and White man.  Our dance action has become conventional to the last degree--in all except the modern ballroom dancing, where a little more convention might be desired.

An Indian has said: "The White man dances with his legs; the Indian with his individual muscles." His dance, is, certainly, rather a body vibration than a limb motion.

The Makah Indians of Washington have a great number of what we would call interpretive dances; and it was not unusual in this tribe for a woman to dance alone.   But, in most tribes, the women were not solo dancers, and did not employ the violent steps and forceful attitudes of the men's dances.

Hartley B. Alexander says: "The steps [of the women] are mincing, feet hardly lifted from the ground, the elbows close to the body and the hands barely shaken, the face impassive; yet noted closely, it will be seen that the whole flesh is quivering with the rhythm of the drum.  Such dancing can be imitated only in a sketchlike fashion; the art itself is not the white man's" (Manitou Masks, p. 15).

Alice Corbin Henderson says: the dances "are the heart and core of Pueblo life; they represent the incarnation of the Pueblo soul.  When the Pueblo Indian fights for his dances, he is fighting for his soul . . . . If we help the Pueblo artist to find his soul, we may find our own."

And again: "The spirit of these dances is so pure, so genuine; they spring so inevitably from a primal source, that a comparison with our more artificial art is almost impossible" (Dance Rituals of the Pueblo Indians).

When a certain Wild West showman was putting on Indian dancers, doing weird barbaric hopping, yelling, and brandishing of spears, he was asked by one who knew how false such a demonstration was: "Why do you do that?  You know that that is not the real Indian dancing."  He replied: "Sure, I know.  But that's what the public thinks is Indian dancing, so I must give it to them."

It is from such sensational sources that most of us obtained our first ideas of the art.  How absurdly false such presentations are, and what a real loss they inflict, I slowly realized.  It was not until the summer of 1927 that I had the full opportunity of seeing for myself what a new world of joyful art was open to those who study Indian dancing.  Before that memorable trip was over, we had seen among the Indians not only the steps of nearly all other nations, but many that were peculiar to the Redman; as well as these steps combined into numberless characteristic and beautiful dances.  We saw, in all, sixty-eight dances and had twenty more described to us by authorities.  There are literally hundreds of different dances among the Redmen.   It is safe to say of these that they embody all the advantages of our social and exhibition dances, and eliminate the grosser faults.

In the dances which follow, those that I have actually recorded, are as true to their presentation as is in my power to make them.  The adaptations are combinations of authentic steps, woven into routines which may appeal to our White modes of thought.   In such, I have generally made the story more apparent than it was in the Indian dance which suggested the adaptation.  To the Indian, the symbolism of his gestures is clear.  But these have been handed down through generations, and have become so stereotyped that they are difficult, and in many cases, impossible, of translation.

In these adaptations, I have endeavored to be faithful to good Indian attitudes of mind and pose; but have made little attempt to be ethnologically correct.  I have freely borrowed and combined material, aiming to present a racial rather than a tribal dance; desiring also, from a study of the characteristics, to create a dance form which will be pregnant with suggestion to our individual dancers, a dance impression of authentic interpretation rather than slavish photographic reproduction.

I wish to offer sincere thanks to the many publications listed in my bibliography; they have been of inestimable value in the formulation of the book; also to Dr. G. Clyde Fisher of the American Museum of Natural History, and to Carol Stryker of the Staten Island Museum, and to the Mack Photo Service of Santa Fe, for the use of their photographs of Indian dances.

But, at this point, I make most grateful acknowledgment to the two women who, in my mind, have done more to bring the Redman into his own than all the rest of his advocates put together--and this, by recognizing the fact that the best defense for the Redman's art was to faithfully reproduce it in language that even Whites can understand.   Frances Densmore and Natalie Curtis, in their books of Indian songs, have helped us to an appreciation of the art that is illuminating. I have literally lived with these books for the past year; and have been inspired again and again to a new dance thought by their presentation of a song or a legend.  I urgently recommend them to all interested in Indian lore, as storehouses of otherwise unavailable treasures.

Rhythm of the Redman






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Peer- Level Topic Links:
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.