Soaring Eagle group rehearsing in front of Pueblo’s sacred Corn Mountain. (Joseph Zummo)

Dancing From the Heart—Zuni Dance Troupes Rehearse at Their Sacred Corn Mountain

Stephanie Woodard
1/23/13

The late afternoon sun slanted through puffy clouds and played over the surface of Zuni Pueblo’s sacred Corn Mountain. Small golden heads of wild sunflowers dappled the field at the base of the mesa, which rises 1,000 feet over the pueblo’s western New Mexico village. Against this imposing high-desert backdrop, a dance rehearsal got under way.

Seven-member Soaring Eagle, the first of two groups to run through their paces that day, adjusted their headdresses and other regalia. Meanwhile, Tammy Weebothee, a dancer and organizer of the rehearsal, pointed out a tall spire, nearly the height of the mesa and just south of it.

It appeared to represent two figures, one taller than the other, wrapped in a blanket. “They’re a brother and sister who died to save the community when flood waters rose.” She noted pale striations across the russet face of Corn Mountain—traces left behind by the foaming waters, she said.

The Anshe:kwe troupe performs nearly every week, from weddings to pow wows. (Joseph Zummo)

Soaring Eagle lived up to its name. As the dancers moved through long chains of intricate unison footwork, they seemed to spend more time in the air than on the ground. Meanwhile, their elegant hand gestures floated above the footwork. Such light-footed elegance may look delicate, but it requires strength and timing—skills that have earned them Zuni Fair dance championships and appearances throughout the Southwest.

The music supports the dance and makes this possible, said Weebothee. “The drumbeat is the heartbeat of mother nature. When you dance, it carries you, and you become one with the earth.”

Soaring Eagle performs social dances, as opposed to religious ones, said group leader and musician Arlen Quetawki Jr., adding that they’re traditional pieces, but they’re also creative. “Working within the Zuni tradition, we compose our own steps, hand gestures and songs. The lyrics have to do with rain, plentiful crops, good health and longevity. We don’t perform for ourselves, but to bring the audience good feelings. If anyone is ill or down on their luck, we want to give them a bit of enjoyment.”

In a rehearsal, Zuni dance group Soaring Eagle works on the light footwork that characterizes their style (Joseph Zummo).

In addition to appearing at cultural centers and festivals, the group has performed in the Zuni public schools. The younger members of the troupe love traveling, Quetawki said—and they have lots of energy. After performing at a Grand Canyon venue, they hiked three and half miles to the canyon floor. “Our dream is to be in the Macy’s parade,” he added. “It would put the spotlight on Pueblo people.” Whether the setting is obviously educational or not, the group seeks to teach while dancing, he said.

Zuni dance group Soaring Eagle's Deer Dancers face off (Joseph Zummo).Soaring Eagle is one of dozens of dance troupes in the pueblo, with as many as 40 participating in the annual Zuni Fair, according to Soaring Eagle musician Howard Lesarlley. For most performers, dancing professionally provides a small second income, though a few groups have dancers under contract, and they can make a living at their art, said Weebothee.

As Soaring Eagle’s rehearsal came to a close, pickup trucks pulled up bearing 14 members of Anshe:kwe, which has performed coast to coast and has also won Zuni Fair championships. The dancers leapt out of the trucks to don brilliantly colored macaw- and pheasant-trimmed headdresses and other regalia, line up and begin their most popular work, the shield dance.

Whereas Soaring Eagle’s style was lyrical, that of Anshe:kwe, led by musician Serfino Cachini, was dramatic. The female dancers displayed unison footwork in subtle, shifting rhythms—linking high-energy runs, stamps, step-hops and toe touches with precision and panache. Their performance was a definition in dance form of cohesion and cooperation.

Meanwhile, three male dancers wove in and out of the line of women—pacing, jumping and punctuating their steps with occasional high-pitched cries. Their movements were grounded and sinuous and included improvisation. “We’re portraying warriors in this dance,” explained the eldest male dancer, McKeffe Chapella. “And when warriors go into battle, they have to improvise.”

Soaring Eagle musicians Arlen Quetawki Jr. (group leader, right) and Howard Lesarlley practice the music for one of the group's traditional social dances (Joseph Zummo).

Choreography is a collective effort for Anshe:kwe, said Cachini. “We sit down and brainstorm. One of the group members or I will show a movement; we’ll all try it out, work with it, then decide together if it looks good or not. We discuss everything—the words of the songs, the hand gestures and every detail of the regalia.”

How often do they rehearse? Peals of laughter from the dancers greeted Cachini’s response: “Every day! We spend too much time together! We’re like a family, and in fact we’re all relatives. Dancing is our world. What we do comes from the heart.”

Soaring Eagle Deer Dancer (Joseph Zummo).Anshe:kwe’s women were wearing dance dresses they’d finished the night before (“hot off the sewing machines,” said Weebothee) in preparation for their next appearance, in Hopi, Arizona. The troupe performs almost every week, for private events like wedding receptions and graduation parties, as well as for public ones. Anshe:kwe is 27-strong at its largest, and when it travels, accompanying family members swell the size of the entourage to several times that number. The group recently appeared at the Grand Canyon, and younger troupe members joked about jumping on the glass-bottomed Skywalk (“You could feel it shake!”).

Most of the dancers have practiced their art since they were able to walk, said Weebothee. In the rehearsal at Corn Mountain, the tiniest member of Anshe:kwe, three-year-old Vanessa Kallestewa, followed the older girls, clutching feathers in her little fists as she tried out the steps. “That’s how it is,” said Cachini. “The little ones learn by watching the older dancers. We also coach each other.”

Zuni dance is about more than steps, according to Weebothee. “For us, it’s an heirloom, and we dance to maintain our traditions. Through it, dancers learn respect, responsibility and cultural awareness. They develop proficiency at positive social interaction. And they learn to dress themselves in traditional attire.”

McKeffe Chapella's riveting depiction of a warrior in the Shield Dance by Zuni dance group Anshe:kwe, led by musician Serfino Cachini (Joseph Zummo).Weebothee and her uncle and brother have taught dance in the pueblo’s public schools. “If our dance students had disciplinary issues, we did not penalize them. Instead, we talked to the whole group about the issue, as though it were a family. As a result, the students grew.” The Zuni public-school dance group also inspired others. When they performed in California, Weebothee recalled, audience members decided to use their own heritage dance to attract youth to something meaningful and positive.

The rehearsal broke up, and the dancers headed back to the village. The sun sank through the brilliant blue sky, picking out yellow wildflowers, green junipers, swaths of pink desert sand and the russet of Corn Mountain—costuming the ancient Zuni landscape in colors as vivid as the dance.

To learn when Zuni dance troupes are appearing, in the pueblo or outside it, contact Zuni Visitor Center (505-782-7238; ZuniTourism.com). If you’re going to the pueblo, make the center your first stop; it’s a low adobe building on the north side of Route 53, east of the village. You can purchase a photo permit and find out about places to eat and stay, walking tours, the community’s A:shiwi A:wan Museum and trading posts offering authentic Zuni jewelry, stone carving, pottery and other crafts.

A young warrior in Anshe:kwe's dramatic Shield Dance (Joseph Zummo).

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Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
Wonderful!

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Beauty

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Billy Bob
Submitted by Billy Bob on
Amazing,

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eaglewolfmark
Submitted by eaglewolfmark on
these photos warms my heart and a swell of emotion to my heart.these photos of the zuni sarced corn dance lets the white people know the culture of every nation still lives and breathes. No matter where who you are what clour these pictures do not touch your heart soul spirit then, who is then dead inside lets work together no matter what nation to show we arestill here and living aho mark eagle nolan

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eaglewolfmark
Submitted by eaglewolfmark on
In 1995 we a didgeridoo tour of the U.S.A for six months .some friends did some home work and at the gathering in texas i was introduced to my native american grandmother and met my native grandfather. Before my father died ,he told me i was adopted this made sense i am not close to my family what i am close to is the navite american people and your beliefs i got ask to leave US for standing up and speaking out for what i saw is and back then injustice towards all native nations tried very hard to stay and again a big thank you to all for the help to all who tried to help me stay and who helped me to put in touch with the native nations from Alaska to New York 22cities please keep up the great work and to who i have met back then thank you from my heart for finding my roots ....IN THE NATIONS never believed in that birth paper anyway aho Mark Eagle Nolan

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Ursula Pike
Submitted by Ursula Pike on
I really like this Travel section. I'd like to see something on Phoenix. I went there recently and thanks to some great Yelp reviews by a Tohono O'odham women, found a great fry bread restaurant. Also, information on places like the Heard museum where a tribal id card gets you a discount would be appreciated.

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Arlen Quetawki Jr
Submitted by Arlen Quetawki Jr on
Ive been looking for this article on Facebook and now I finally found it and shared it. Much thanks to Stephanie Woodard and Joseph Zummo for giving us the exposure we have sought. I would like to commend Indian Country Today for providing Natives and non Natives a resource that allows us to share traditional and contemporary issues with each other. Thanks again.

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E. Quam Anderson
Submitted by E. Quam Anderson on
Love it, love it, love it. All the folks mentioned in this article are my relatives. Thank you for sharing.

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Serfino Cachini
Submitted by Serfino Cachini on
As Mr. Arlen said been looking for these pictures ..and it feels good to see our children being exposed out into the world with a strong and a positive mind....I thank each and everyone of you who helped get us to were we are right now...many blessings to you .. may you all have a strong and happy life.... Serfino Cachini Anshe:kwe Dance Group Leader
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