Contemporary dance, ballet, jazz and tap classes often influence each other, while other dance forms, such as Irish jigs and Native American fancy dancing, rarely overlap — often because they are an expression of cultural heritage. But on Saturday, March 24, at the Denver March Powwow, Native American fancy dancing will be merged with classical ballet. And if that sounds funky, that's because it is.
Keya Clairmont, whose Lakota name is Makes People Happy Through Her Dancing, choreographed a work with Colorado Ballet dancers that premiered in February at the Colorado Ballet's Black Box Theatre. It will be performed again in the ring at the Powwow.
Westword sat down with Clairmont to ask about her creative process.
Westword: You dance competitively and have won several titles at powwows. This is such a different dynamic than the setting of classical ballet! How does this energy transfer into your choreography?
Clairmont: The actual competition at powwows with dancers is secondary to the competition with self, meaning that I'm always trying to improve. The real competition is between the drum and I. I wouldn't even say that there's competition between other dancers, because we all push each other to dance hard. This is a teaching I taught to the ballerinas from day one. From there, it all transferred into the choreography by learning moves that were best suited for each song.
Tell me about fancy shawl dancing.
To tell you about the fancy shawl dance, there has to be a history learned about powwows. Many do not know that one of the largest powwows in the circuit has taken place at the Denver Coliseum for the past 44 years – the Denver March Powwow. There you will see dancers from all over the country come and celebrate life and enjoy themselves dancing to over forty drum groups. With that, the Women's Fancy Shawl dance is the most contemporary dance, which derived in the ’50s and ’60s. We dance to all types of songs, and our knowledge of the song is the mental aspect and what makes someone a better dancer. The second aspect is being physically fit to be able to dance anywhere from three to six fast paced songs while making it look graceful and effortless.
When I dance, there is freedom to be as creative as I wish. I'm showing my inner self when I'm dancing. In most cultures, dances have a meaning or a purpose. My purpose is to maintain constant footwork, spins, endurance, and knowledge of the song. Most importantly, I dance for those who cannot dance. I dance for my family, and I dance to show how much I enjoy this style. I have danced all my life, and there's a deep connection I have when hearing powwow songs. This is who I am as a person. It's embedded in me.
What kind of music will the ballet dancers be moving to?
"Powwow music" is a general term for songs that are composed by drum groups from various tribes in the United States and Canada. Most drum groups are generations of singers that pass down songs over decades. Each song is unique and comes from a talented song maker. These songs are knowledge being passed down. We will be dancing to a straight song, crow hop, and necklace breaker.
What are the biggest differences you notice in the two different dance forms? I certainly notice that with fancy shawl and powwow dancing, there is a lot more fabric to work with.
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Yes! We use a lot more fabric. For my outfit alone, I need seven yards for my shawl, shirt and skirt. Every dancer has their own attire, and that's just what I'm accustomed to wearing. In fancy shawl dancing, we are constantly bouncing on our toes to a constant drum beat for well up to four minutes, depending on the song, whereas in ballet, dancers have to keep their feet firmly to the ground with certain positions that have to be mastered. Our structures are different, because we never know what song we will be dancing to. Sometimes a song can really make you move in ways that can never be repeated. It's a given to have our differences; our dances derive from different historical backgrounds. It's what we are making together that will bring a sense of communion with the music that is native to this country. We have a lot of respect toward each other by teaching our unique styles of dance.
What are the similarities?
When I dance fancy, I make sure to have good posture and to have my own particular set of sequences ready. We both practice, a lot. Just like ballet, we in the powwow world can tell when someone puts in work; they make the dance look effortless and graceful. We both can spot when a dancer is showing true beauty and enjoyment of the dance.
Catch the union of ballet and fancy dancing at Moccasins en Pointe, at the Denver March Powwow, from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday, March 24, at the Denver Coliseum, 4600 Humboldt Street. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased at the Powwow website.