Given its legacy of color, vivacity and even rebellion, the name of the dance is ironically plain: fancy shawl. Women’s fancy shawl—often mistakenly thought to be a dance that traces back far in history but is actually a fairly recent innovation—is one of the most anticipated competitions at pow wows. In this unique performance, young women from many nations skim, twirl and hop across the arena with a gait that manages to be staccato, lithe and fluid all at once.
For generations, women’s dances tended to be restrained, regal and sedate. But when men in the 1920s created what we now know as men’s fancy dance in order to skirt U.S. government bans on tribal dances (and simultaneously create a spectacle for tourists willing to pay for the pleasure of viewing these performances), women wanted in on the action. In fact, the regalia of the first female fancy dancers were similar to men’s regalia, such as wearing bustles.
This early form of the dance didn’t take off until the 1950s, when women in northern tribes incorporated traditionally feminine aspects. And thus what we now know as fancy shawl dance was born.
Fancy shawl dancers are often said to resemble butterflies. The shawl that gives the dance its name—a fringed, colorful, often beaded or appliquéd adaptation of the traditional women’s blanket—extends over the length of the dancer’s “wingspan.” Being light on one’s feet is a must, so the simile applies. Footwork tends to be decided by the individual; there is no particular set of steps to which dancers must adhere, and balance and symmetry are more esteemed than fancy moves. At least one foot should hit the ground with each drumbeat, except during jumps or spins; the dancer’s head also keeps time with the beat, though not nearly as emphatically as one might see in men’s fancy dance. As with all pow wow dancing, dancing to the tone, style and rhythm of the song is essential, and not ending with the final drumbeat will get a dancer disqualified. Poise, endurance, showmanship, agility and grace are the prized attributes.
In fact, the fancy shawl dance was called the “graceful shawl dance” when it emerged in the 1950s. While fancy shawl dancers are still indisputably graceful, there is occasional dispute about how athletic the dance should be. In the 1950s and 1960s, dancers stayed closer to the ground and took smaller steps than today’s shawl dancers. The mid-century shawl dance was more exuberant than women’s traditional dance, but it was still restrained and known as “ladylike” in demeanor. In the 1970s and beyond—perhaps influenced by the growing awareness of women’s equality in the zeitgeist—the dance began to resemble what we see at pow wows today. A competitor might spin heartily and repeatedly; she may whir her way through her fellow dancers, resembling more an agile snake than a butterfly; she may kick, even leap, with her shawl extended above her head.
This makes for exciting viewing, but mature hands routinely tell beginners to not kick too high, to not rely on spins to display one’s technique, and to not use flamboyance as a crutch to cover a lack of style. Other practical advice to beginners often includes tips on cross-training: endurance running, sprinting and strength training are common among experienced dancers who know how much stamina the dance requires. Most of all, though, experienced dancers always share this simple bit of wisdom with novices: Have fun.
“I’ve been told by many people that because of how petite I am, I should try harder,” said Bobbi Lynn Pratt, Hopi/Dakota/Ojibwe, 2010 Gathering of Nations women’s fancy shawl champion. “But as for winning, I try not to think about that part so much because it takes the fun out of dancing for me—although placing is definitely a bonus.”
The intersection of joy and restraint, discipline and energy is also seen in the regalia. The fringed shawl, moccasins and leggings are found on virtually every competitor, along with a flared skirt that might be attached to a top, and a beaded overlay, usually a vest or yoke. Practical considerations apply—the strenuous dance makes adequate ventilation essential. (Wearing buckskin is allowed in women’s fancy shawl competitions, but its weight and lack of breathability means that it is used strictly as an accent.) The color scheme may borrow from butterflies (pinks, oranges, and blues are popular) though anything from blacks to neons may be worn. Of utmost importance is modesty: Dancers are encouraged to consider how much leg might be revealed once the regalia is in its full range of motion, particularly during spins. Accessories can include beaded earrings, hair ties, chokers with a neck-drop, and headbands.
Pratt says there is a cyclical effect in regalia: “I’ve seen fancy shawl evolve from simple wear into a very contemporary, elaborate style, including the make and style of shawls, dresses, and beadwork,” she said. “Some of the ways from those first days have come back, with a new twist.” The cycle of new to old and back again isn’t surprising, but considering that women’s fancy shawl is less than a century old, it points to a yearning—particularly among non-indigenous people—to bolster traditions and link them to contemporary life. Take the butterfly example. While many dances have roots in legend and oral tradition, fancy dancing’s practical origins mean that while the dance is to be taken no less seriously than dances performed by those from centuries ago, reaching to the natural world to explain it is a backward approach. Participants on the online pow wow portal PowWows.com frequently extend the visual likeness to see meanings that aren’t there.
“The girl who is represented by a larva of a butterfly becomes a woman who is represented by the butterfly,” wrote one misguided “reviewer. While dancers frequently are young women—the stamina required means that dancers move toward more traditional women’s dance as they age—the comparison is simply untrue. “When women’s fancy first came around, they didn’t look or dance like the fancy shawl dancers of today, all colorful like butterflies,” said a Standing Rock Sioux woman. “They were more like moths.”
Yet there’s no question that for the dancers of fancy shawl, the dance can be a contemporary tool for bonding within Indian country—it was intertribal from its very origins. When asked about her pre-competition ritual, Pratt focuses on the community aspect and how essential that is to her. “I always think of the people, my family, who can’t dance. I hope it makes them happy when I dance. I couldn’t imagine dancing anything else.”