The hoop is symbolic of ”the never-ending circle of life.” It has no beginning and no end.
Many tribal groups across North America used the hoop in traditional healing ceremonies, and the hoop’s significance enhances the embodiment of healing ceremonies. Tribal healers and holy men have long regarded the hoop as sacred and many have used it in their ceremonies. Visions and ailments were seen through some of these hoops by tribal holy men and women.
Many tribes lay claim to the Hoop Dance. It wasn’t until the 1930s that a young man named Tony White Cloud, Jemez Pueblo, played an instrumental role in its evolution and began using multiple hoops in a stylized version as ”founder of the modern Hoop Dance.”
He used five hoops made of willow wood bent to form a circle. These hoops were approximately 24 inches in diameter, enough to get his small frame through. Through this new art form, he invented hoop formations to symbolize traditional designs and teachings that were a part of his culture and traditional pueblo upbringing. The hoop designs that White Cloud invented are still the foundation of hoop formations and routines in modern Hoop dancing. American Indians saw his modern multiple Hoop dances in his performances in the 1930s in the American Indian Exposition in Anadarko, Okla., the Gallup Indian Ceremonial in New Mexico and Chicago’s Railroad Fair, and adapted it in their own Indian dance shows for the public.
White Cloud made a cameo performance of his Hoop Dance to the American public in the 1942 movie ”Valley of the Sun,” starring Lucille Ball. During World War II, White Cloud traveled with Gene Autry across America and Europe promoting war bonds to fund the war effort by performing the Hoop Dance. He later danced in Autry’s movie, ”Apache Country,” in 1952.
The Hoop Dance soon became a crowd-pleaser in American Indian and First Nations dance performances as the modern multi-hoop Hoop Dance allowed dancers to weave stories of how all life is connected with changes and transitions. The dance itself began to tell visual stories through the creation of ever-changing discernable symbols.
In 1991, Ralph Zotigh, my father, was the director of entertainment at the New Mexico State Fair Indian Village. He asked me to brainstorm ideas that would attract crowds to the Indian Village. I suggested having a world championship Hoop Dance contest to see, for the first time, who was the best of the best.
Once the decision was made to host the championship at the New Mexico State Fair, I integrated the Olympic Likert scoring system of one to 10, with one being the lowest score and 10 the highest. I then created five categories to score each contestant: precision, timing/rhythm, showmanship, creativeness and speed. It was my rationale that speed and creativeness would balance the scoring between Hoop dancers who used only four hoops but danced to extremely fast songs, versus dancers with 20 or more hoops who danced to a slower drumbeat.
All contestants participated in a grand entry together after which each dancer individually danced to live music, recorded music or an accompaniment selection of his choice. They had two chances to compete to make the top 10, who competed in a final heat. Out of 18 contestants, the first world champion Hoop dancer was Eddie Swimmer, Cherokee, from Cherokee, N.C.
After tremendous response and success, co-founders Zotigh and I decided to move the venue of this championship to a larger location. Three possible venues included the Heard Museum in Phoenix; the Grand Casino Celebration Powwow in Hinckley, Minn.; and the Schemitzun Green Corn Festival in Ledyard, Conn.
Upon pitching the idea to the Heard Museum in late 1991, an agreement was made for the Heard to host the second championship. It was called the Tony White Cloud Memorial World Championship Hoop Dance Contest to honor White Cloud for his contributions in founding the modern Hoop Dance.
New additions for this contest were five regional representatives who would serve as judges. They were Charles Tail Feathers, Cree, from Oregon (representing the West Coast); Dennis Bowen Sr., Seneca, from New York (representing the East Coast); Gordon Tootoosis, Plains Cree, from Saskatchewan (representing Canada); Sidney Whitesell, Lakota, from South Dakota (representing the northern Plains); and myself, Kiowa, Santee Dakota and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, of Oklahoma (representing the southern Plains). Zotigh, Kiowa from New Mexico, served as the master of ceremonies.
Unlike the first competition, dance competitors were allowed to choose to compete on an even cement stage or grass arena on the Heard Museum property. There were also new breakdowns of Tiny Tot, Youth, Adult and Senior divisions. The adult winner of this competition was Quentin Pipestem, Tsuu T’ina, from Alberta, Canada.
In 1994 Jackie Bird, Mandan, Hidatsa and Santee Sioux, from South Dakota, became the first adult female contestant to compete in the world championship. Bird was also the first competitor to use props in her Hoop Dance routine. When asked if she felt women should have a separate category, Bird replied, ”I think women are just as good as the men and should be able to compete with them!” This set a precedent for later Hoop Dance contests that integrated women and men on the same level of competition.
In 2000, Lisa Odjig, Odawa and Anishnaabe, from Ontario, became the first female adult Hoop Dance world champion. She again repeated as world champion in 2003. Between 1994 and 2003, a series of Hoop Dance competitions took place throughout Indian country, sparking a greater interest throughout North America in Hoop dancing and its evolution.
Modern hoops are made from an array of materials. Traditional wood hoops made of willow and bois d’arc are still used to limited extent. More popular are reed and plastic hose hoops decorated with tape and paint, according to the dancer’s preference. Hoop dancers who perform frequently prefer the reed and plastic hoops because of their durability when traveling. Today, many contemporary Hoop dancers mark four symbols on each hoop when performing their Hoop Dance to symbolize the philosophy of seasonal changes, the four cardinal directions and four sacred colors.
As Hoop dancing evolves, it incorporates multiple creative designs, intricate body and footwork and ever-changing routines. Modern Hoop dancers present their unique variation of the Hoop Dance along with their distinct perspective of interpretation. Individual routines are presented using as few as four to as many as 50 hoops, which are used to create designs including animals, birds, deities and global symbols. Hoop dancers are now sharing this art form throughout the world! Modern Hoop dancing will continue to evolve in new directions as future generations of Hoop dancers emerge.
Dennis Zotigh, Kiowa, Santee Dakota and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, is a contributing writer for Indian Country Today. He is a pow wow historian, dancer, singer, director of The Great American Indian Dance Company, co-founder of the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest and cultural events coordinator for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.