The Never-Ending Circle of Life Native American Hoop Dancing from Its Origin to the Present Day: More Than a Demonstration of Skill, This Dance Seeks Harmony and Balance with Unity and Equity

By Johnston, Rhea; Hixon, Kathy et al. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, August 2009 | Go to article overview

The Never-Ending Circle of Life Native American Hoop Dancing from Its Origin to the Present Day: More Than a Demonstration of Skill, This Dance Seeks Harmony and Balance with Unity and Equity


Johnston, Rhea, Hixon, Kathy, Anton, Vanessa, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Imagine a dancer attired in intricate regalia of beads, feathers, ribbons, bells, and cloth with an array of bright colors--reds, blues, greens, and yellows. Feet and body move fluidly to a pulsating rhythm while the dancer quickly and deftly manipulates brilliantly colored hoops in a dazzling and ever-changing kaleidoscope. While engaged in a dance requiring physical stamina and dexterity, the dancer maintains a constant state of physical and mental flow. When watching the hoop dance, spectators sense they have slipped into another time, feeling a sense of joy and connection to those who came before, as well as to those in the present.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

For Native Americans, dance is a way to express their beliefs and traditions--"By learning and participating in dance, Native Americans reaffirm their identities, keep the ties with Mother Earth alive and assure the continuation of an ancient way of life" (Leonard, 2004, p. 1). The hoop dance, which is one of the most popular genres of Native American dance today, was originally performed as a part of private healing rituals and spiritual ceremonies. The modern-day, public form of the hoop dance is symbolic of the interconnectedness of life (the circle of life) and the "continuity of past, present, and future" (Graham, 2007).

The Symbolic Hoop

The hoop signifies this never-ending circle of life. Black Elk, a Lakota holy man who lived from 1863 to 1950, said that when the time of prosperity and well-being returned, his people would gather in a large hoop made up of many hoops that represent the many nations living together in harmony. He described this sacred circle as follows:

  You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and
  that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and
  everything tries to be round. In the old days all our power came to
  us from the sacred hoop of the nation and so long as the hoop was
  unbroken the people flourished. The flowering tree was the living
  center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it.
  The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave
  rain and the north with its clod and mighty wind gave strength and
  endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our
  religion. Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle.
  The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball
  and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.
  Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as
  ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon
  does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great
  circle in their changing and always come back again to where they
  were. (Neihardt, 1932/1988)

The dancer who performs the hoop dance pays respect to the sacred circle (encompassed by the sky and the earth) and all that is connected to it--nature, animals, and people. According to Zotigh (2006), the Lakota call this concept Oyate C'an Gleska (Hoop of the People). Through dancing, they seek harmony and balance in all things with unity and equity. Within a circle all are equal: no one is in front and no one is behind, no one is above and no one is below (Chief, 1997).

The original hoops were made from willow and bois d'arc (osage-orange, a flexible but strong wood). Today, dancers prefer highly decorated hoops of reed or plastic hose when a higher degree of skill and difficulty are required. Many dancers decorate each hoop with four sacred colors--red, yellow, black, and white--that symbolize the four seasons and the four cardinal directions. Contemporary dancers also interpret the four colors in different ways. For example, Dallas Chief Eagle (Rosebud Lakota Sioux and master hoop dancer) points out that as the hoops twirl and intersect into increasingly complex shapes, they always return to the beginning. …

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