Where Dance Is at the Center of the World: New Mexican Andrew Garcia Draws Inner Strength from His Pueblo Indian Dance Traditions, Which He Teaches and Practices

Article excerpt

"By dancing, one awakens, arises.... To dance is . . . to participate in an ageless, cosmic movement.... Pueblo people thus honor the passing of time by dancing as a reminder to awaken, to participate in the connected flow of life around them."

Truly indigenous American dance can still be seen in its traditional setting, both spiritual and physical. Although the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and eastern Arizona long suffered religious persecution by Christian zealots, they were never driven from their homelands as many Native Americans were--never forced to abandon their traditional style of town, with its dance plazas and sacred kivas (ceremonial structures) which are integral to their religion.

At the center of Pueblo society are ceremonial dances with origins that long predate the arrival of the white man. It is inspiring to spend time in a society where, in contrast to establishment thinking, dance is fundamental to life, a communal responsibility in which all ages take part. Although many early writers, such as Erna Fergusson and Frank Waters, assumed that Indian culture was dying out, the reverse has happily proved true. Current evidence of vigor can be witnessed, for example, at Santo Domingo Pueblo's annual Corn Dance, where a full thousand current or returning residents dance in imposing formations.

Although ceremonies in the kivas are off-limits to non-Indians, visitors are welcome at many dances that take place in the plazas. In contrast to powwows, with their individual prowess [see "Tribal Splendor," Dance Magazine June 1992, page 46], these group rituals, many of them performed in unison, often feature contained gestures close to the body, erect torsos, and small, earth-hugging steps--with powerful effect. Costumes are elegant and subtle, and each detail has meaning and beauty.

Native Indian residents will generally deflect curious visitors' questions about the dances; earlier harassment and more recent cultural appropriation by whites have made them reluctant to reveal meanings. It seems remarkable, therefore, to find that a Pueblo Indian teacher is currently sharing his cultural traditions and certain of the less sacred dances in classes at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Andrew Garcia, respected veteran director of his own company, singer, drummer, and dancer, now teaches in UNM's dance department with the blessing of the elders of his pueblo, San Juan. (UNM's active dance department also offers a wide range of ballet, modern dance, and flamenco classes, as well as such subjects as dance history, criticism, and choreography.)

Today, Garcia is working with the students on San Juan Pueblo's Comanche Dance, commemorating the Pueblos' contacts with the Plains Indian tribe, some peaceful, some not. In accompaniment, he beats a small drum authoritatively and sings in his sonorous baritone, as the men move boldly, each holding a rattle and an arrow, while the women, holding eagle feathers, tread with small, springy steps. For this visitor, invited to take part, the dancing, along with the deep, soft drumbeat and expressive singing, gives a feeling of connection to the earth and to the other participants, even in this studio setting. At the same time that the steps are very "down," one feels that the women must be light on their feet. Later, we practice the Friendship Dance, which is shared by many tribes, a sidestepping round dance in which spectators may be invited to join. Garcia remarks approvingly that as the class progresses, all are bending their knees more into the dances.

The students have come into class practicing words that Garcia has taught them in Tewa, the language of his pueblo. Between dances, they gather around, asking questions. Some have followed him from previous courses. They are planning a potluck supper in his honor at the end of the semester.

This affable man with the twinkle in his kind eyes, whose traditional Indian name, NaNa T'saa, translates as "White Aspen," talks to them about the meaning of various dances, about the joy of dancing, upcoming dances at the pueblos, and his own difficult early life. …