Tony Duncan, Apache/Hidatsa/Arikara/Mandan of Mesa, Arizona, is used to winning championships, he won four of them as a teen. On Sunday, February 6th, Duncan was able to win his first adult championship at the 21st Annual Heard Museum Hoop Dance Championship in Phoenix, Arizona. Tony wasn’t the only Duncan to win or place during the championship—he was joined by four of his brothers as well, giving the 10,000 member audience a whole lot of good Duncan family feeling while they cheered on the 45 hoop dancers who came from across the United States and Canada. The event is sponsored by the Jay Kahn Memorial Fund and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. The Heard Museum was founded in 1929 by Dwight and Maie Bartlett Heard, and its mission is to educate the public about the heritage and living cultures and arts of Native peoples, focusing on peoples of the Southwest.
The hoop dance is a singularly stunning pow wow event and dance competition, with the performers flipping hoops from the ground onto their ankles, legs, arms and the rest of the body, creating shapes with the spinning hoops. “Hoop dancing incorporates speed and agility as dancers maneuver their bodies through one to more than 50 hoops. Dancers also integrate creative designs and difficult manipulations of the hoops to present a unique variation of the dance,” the Heard Museum said in a press release. Debra Utacia Krol, the communication manager at the Heard, told us, “These guys and gals are real athletes and this is a real sport. A lot these athletes work out three, four times a week. They’re pushing the sport. They’re creating horses, eagles, butterflies and dragonflies with their hoops, they’re doing back flips while holding onto their hoops…Daniel Tramper did two backflips during the finals. In the senior division!”
Krol told us the goal for hoop dancing is to see this competition become a part of the World Indigenous Games or as an exhibition event at the Olympics (the reason for not wanting hoop dancing to become an Olympic sport is that it would require it to be opened up to everyone, and the desire to keep this within Indian Country is strong). Krol likens hoop dancing to Ice Dancing, which is an Olympic sport.
Tony Duncan managed to score a whopping 244 points to win his championship, netting him a cash prize of $3,500. Second place went to Lane Jensen, Navajo/Maricopa, of Dilkon, AZ, who scored 234. Five judges hand out a total of 50 points each in the five fields: Precision, timing and rhythm, showmanship, creativity, and speed. To the last category, the hoop dancers perform to both the Northern and Southern drums, and the ability to match their steps with the varying speeds (Southern drum is historically faster) is often a key area in which crucial points are won and lost. All finalists earn cash prizes.
“It’s good to be aware of the fact that some of these people are professionals, and we honor that because it’s a really cool way of being able to stay in your community and be a part of your community and still be able to make a living.” Krol said. You know how hard it is to make a living on the rez.”
The family affair continued in the teen division, with Christian Hazell, Metis Nation of Alberta, from Calgary, Alberta, taking home his second world championship with 231 points. Sky Duncan, one of the Duncan brothers, placed second with 219 points and Chantika Hazell, Christian’s younger sister, won third place with a score of 217 points.
The Youth Championship Title went to little Tyrese Jensen, Navajo/Maricopa, of Dilkon, Arizona, who grabbed his second Youth Championship title in a row with 239 points. Krol pointed out that despite being “pint sized” for the last few years of competition, she anticipates a growth spurt soon. “His granddad is near six feet,” she said. Talon, the youngest Duncan to place, came in second with 231 points, while Qootsvenma Denipah-Cook (Tewa) of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, New Mexico, scored 209 points to win third place.
Krol made two final points to us on the competitiveness of the tournament and the spirit beneath the fierce competitions. “When they’re dancing, they’re giving it everything they’ve got. They get really, really competitive. Only there are no knee whackers in our sport!” When we pressed her for an explanation of what a “knee whacker” is, she asked if we remembered who Tonya Harding was, with not a little bit of incredulity in her voice. “No knee whackers here,” Krol laughed, but then her tone changed when she brought up the story of Tommy Draper.
“A couple of years ago, Tommy Draper, the oldest hoop dancer performing regularly, lost his home to a fire, and a bunch of people who loved and respected him helped him rebuild his home, and help him sew new regalia or give him their own to get him back on the trail again. He came in third this year. He is on the far side of his 60s, and he’s still hoop dancing.”