Pow Wow Dancing: Honoring Your Mind and Body

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
1/15/12

Between traditional holiday feasts, frigid weather tempting the northerners among us to stay indoors, and the frenzy of new year’s resolutions, visions of cardiovascular fitness and weight management are dancing through many a head at this time of year—and indeed, dancing may just be a solution.

American Indian pow wow dances, from fancy dance to grass dance and even traditional, can offer a way for people to get and stay fit in the new year and beyond. With many dances requiring intense physical exertion—and with all dances being tied to community—the post-holiday season may be the perfect time to shake off holiday blues (and if a few holiday pounds come off too, so be it). Strenuous dances like fancy dance, fancy shawl, and grass dance, like any aerobic exercise, strengthen cardiovascular fitness. But dancers don’t need to be gearing toward competition to reap the benefits: Even light physical exertion done for 30 minutes three times a week brings health benefits. Just putting on a CD of any traditional music with a strong drum beat and following the rhythm can raise your heartbeat—and with a few variations, targeted muscle groups can get their own workout.

Dancers can incorporate specific fitness-enhancing techniques into their practice following basic strength-training moves. Duck-and-dive already has one such move incorporated: A change in drum beat signals dancers to, well, duck and dive, which requires flexing the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals, hip flexors, and calf muscles. Inserting your own moves might not work during competition, but during practice sessions and workouts, strength-training can be a matter of choosing one move and dropping it into the dance at regular intervals. Squats, leg raises, lunges, and sideways bends can all be performed to the beat, either as bursts of large actions or as smaller pulses (for example, bending into a squat and gently pulsing your legs so that your seat lifts up just an inch or two). More ambitious? Work in push-ups, either on the ground or against a wall, at the beginning and ending of each song.

Even the more sedate dances—traditional women’s, or the Kiowa gourd dance, for example, both of which require a concentrated motion instead of big expenditures of energy—can provide health benefits, even if the cardiovascular system isn’t particularly challenged. Sitting down most of the time increases a person’s risk of developing heart disease by 50%, even when following a regimen of physical activity. Just one day of doing nothing but sitting can trigger symptoms of pre-diabetes, making something as simple as a standing dance a weapon against health dangers.

Perhaps the true power of Indian dance as fitness, however, lies not in its specific physical movements but more in its holistic nature. As an activity that requires little but a CD player and a desire to learn, dancing for fitness already clears a major hurdle: It’s easy and affordable, and can be adjusted to any fitness level, from people in physical rehabilitation to those whose cardiovascular profile resembles the late Jim Thorpe’s, circa 1912 (the year he became an Olympic champion). More important, the social aspect of dance take its benefits beyond the arena: People with developed community networks may have a leg up on protection against non-cancer mortality, cardiovascular disease, and depression, research shows.

But when we dance traditional dances, we’re not just connecting with the people who are standing beside us. We’re connecting with those who have gone. “We dance for those who went before us. We’re dancing for them,” said Kiowa Gourd Clan member Tom Spotted Horse in Indian Country Today last year. “I think about this to this day when I dance.” It’s a sentiment echoed by dancers of all strains: “I’m dancing more for my people than for myself,” said Wanbli Charging Eagle, a top grass dancer. “The dance gives us a feeling of unity for your family, your family’s family, for the entire family of Caddo people,” said Caddo historian Cecile Carter of the turkey dance.

It’s this spiritual and communal aspect that may prove to be the most important aspect of dance as fitness in Indian communities. According to a joint report from the Management Sciences for Health and the Office of Minority Health and Bureau of Primary Health Care, relying upon community strengths to overcome challenges is key to developing health care practices that stick. As identified by the report, strengths in Native communities include creativity, connection with the past, honoring of elders, and holistic thinking. Given these assets, it’s hard to think of a fitness program more fitting for Indians than dance.

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