As with many indigenous dances, the origins of the grass dance are both unclear and disputed. Beginning in the northern plains tribes—particularly Omaha-Ponca and Dakota-Sioux—the dance’s northern roots are acknowledged, but the dance is now considered largely intertribal. Ironically, grass dance owes its longevity and thorough dissemination in part to a modernization of ceremonies prompted by early 20th-century oppression. In an attempt to stabilize during a period of rapid cultural conversions by the United States government, it became important to both preserve and spread dances—including the merging of many tribal dances that formed what we now know as grass dance—to preserve indigenous unity.
It’s a history that’s not lost on today’s dancers: “The most important thing with grass dancing is respect,” says Wanbli Charging Eagle (Lakota Sioux and Ojibwe), one of the top grass dancers at the 2010 Gathering of Nations. “Respect the ones that came before you, the ones that actually paved the way for all us grass dancers.”
Geographic origins aside, spiritual, practical, and legend-oriented explanations of grass dance abound. The dominant legend is that a Northern Plains boy, born handicapped yet yearning to dance, was told by his medicine man to seek inspiration in the prairie. Upon doing so, the boy had a vision of himself dancing in the style of the swaying grasses; he returned to his village, shared his vision, and eventually was given back the use of his legs through the first-ever grass dance.
A practical origin is more generally cited, however: To settle a new area, create an appropriate venue for a tribal meeting, or secure an arena for a ceremony, high grasses had to be trampled down to ensure visibility. Scouts would stomp on the grasses to flatten them, and the grass dance grew from there. Yet another strain of the dance’s genesis points toward the importance of dried grass in the warrior’s life: It could be used as tinder, or even as makeshift stockings, for warmth. The regalia honors the role of grass in the warrior’s life—and indeed, grass dance societies often grew from warrior societies. In fact, a grisly theory states that once upon a time, warriors would do victory dances with scalps attached to their garments. Dried grass came to stand in for scalps, then yarn for grass.
But it’s not only the province of warriors: Women have danced it on occasion. There are 19th-century photographs of women grass dancing, and in the 1970s—a heyday of women’s rights and native consciousness—women participated, wearing men’s regalia. Today, this has died down and it is considered a men’s dance, but it remains a popular choice for women to flirt with during switch dance.
Like other dances, balance and symmetry are essential. What the body does on one side, it must do on the other. The movements evoke the grass-trampling theory of the dance’s origins, as dancers seem to be stamping down grasses. Its evolution has led to a broader repertoire of moves: The kicks are a shade higher now, the spins a hint faster, and dancers are likelier to travel around the arena than they were even 15 years ago. Yet the dance remains unmistakably true to its roots: While Charging Eagle consistently honors his ancestors and tribe by sticking to the roots of grass dance, he also acknowledges that adding one’s own essence helps keep the dance alive. “I try to outdo myself, not the other dancers,” he says. “Grass dance is about movement, footwork, and style—the beat is medium so there are so many things you can do with your body.”
The most distinctive component of grass dance regalia is the yarn that adorns every piece. From a fringed cape to apron and leggings, sweeping lengths of yarn evoke grasses swaying in the wind, their weight bouncing with every step the dancer takes. The headpiece is usually the only item that uses feathers, keeping two roach feathers secured with a spreader. Some dancers also affix “antennae” fashioned out of anything from guitar strings to car choke cables, topped with a tuft of down. Ankle bells—often sheep or sleigh bells—keep time with the music.
Connected to the cosmos through the alert headpiece feather, to the earth through his moccasins, and to the flora through his regalia and movements, the grass dancer also connects with his people. “When I dance, I feel like I’m representing my family and my tribe,” says Charging Eagle. “When I travel, when I go all over with this dance, I take them with me and represent them the best way I can. I’m dancing more for my people than for myself.”