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October 6, 2012–October 8, 2017
The National Museum of the American Indian in New York

Consistent across time and cultures is the use of the body to communicate and express—to tell stories, participate in the cycles of nature, mourn, pray, and celebrate. Throughout the Americas music and dance have always been an essential part of the spiritual, cultural, and social lives of Native peoples.
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The ancient Maya maize god was a god of dance. In the exquisite, first century BC murals at San Bartolo, Guatemala, the maize god is depicted emerging into the world, dancing and playing a turtle shell drum worn on his chest. After his mythic journey to the underworld, the maize god dances back to life between the rain spirit, Chahk, and the spirit of standing water.

Maya maize god (central figure) emerging into the world, dancing and playing a turtle shell drum. Detail of San Bartolo mural from El Petén, Guatemala. 1st century, BC. Rendering by Heather Hurst, courtesy of Boundary End Archaeology.

According to Maya scholar Karl Taube, this mural is one of the earliest known portrayals of Mesoamerican dance. As Taube explains, dance is a common theme in both pre-Classic and Classic Maya art. Dance scenes are depicted in Maya sculpture, ceramics, and codices as well as in murals. Maya rulers, who often associated themselves with the maize god, are sometimes shown dancing in elaborate feathered garb—as was the maize god himself. In Maya thought, maize foliage and green quetzal plumes are symbolically linked. The Maya, however, were not the only society to connect dance with the bringing of rain and maize. Associating dance with life-generating forces and deities is a widespread and ongoing tradition in the Americas.

To this day unique forms of ritual, ceremonial, and social dancing maintain a vital place in contemporary community life. Everywhere dance is found, it is accompanied by distinctive Native musical styles. Rich music and dance traditions create strong ties that bind American Indian communities to all living things, the earth, the spiritual world, and to each other. When people have deep ancestral claims to their dances, the traditions also bind communities to the past. Even when songs and dances are borrowed from neighboring groups, or when ritual dances combine Christian and indigenous beliefs, music and dance play a central role in people’s lives. Indigenous ceremonial dances are dynamic events that allow Native peoples to maintain old ways and introduce new ones while expressing and celebrating their strongly felt tribal, village, clan, society, and individual identities.

The time of a performance, direction of a dance, number of dance phrases, words of songs, uses of musical instruments, and details of ceremonial dress—all can be highly symbolic. Often these elements of a dance are tied to a community’s cosmology and most deeply held beliefs. But for well over fifty years in the United States and Canada—and for centuries in Latin America—church and “civilization” regulations discouraged and even outlawed many indigenous dances and the religious ceremonies of which they were often a part. The Ghost Dances and Sun Dances of Plains and other western communities were perhaps the best-known targets of government agents and missionaries in the United States, but many other traditional ways involving dance also were suppressed. In Canada, officials deemed North Pacific Coast tribal potlatches—which involved gift-giving and oratory as well as dramatic dances—an impediment to conversion and assimilation, and they prohibited their practice. In Latin America, Christian missionaries’ efforts at cultural change have long included suppressing Native ceremonial dances such as the Cubeo Óyne Dance.

It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that prohibitions against ceremonies involving dance were fully reversed. Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, many Native American communities continue to preserve their dance traditions, some of which were underground for decades. Other dances, owing to particular historical contingencies, have only recently been revived. Still others, unperturbed during the twentieth century, have continued to hold their social and religious importance for community members.

Set to the rhythm of turtle-shell, gourd, and deer-hoof rattles; conch shell trumpets; bird bone whistles; rawhide drums; cane, wood, or ceramic flutes; wood or bone rasps; copper bells; or many other musical instruments, and to an amazing repertoire of vocal music, dance is a powerful impulse and a universal form of expression that remains deeply meaningful in Native America—and integral to Native ceremonial life. Circle of Dance  presents ten social and ceremonial dances from throughout the Americas. In all but two cases, the dances are described by Native community members. Each of the dances embodies an awareness of a greater cosmic order and, often, the importance of reciprocal relationships in maintaining that order. In other words, life-sustaining concepts are embedded in the dances.

Despite great odds, dance remains a vibrant, meaningful, and diverse form of cultural expression in many Native communities throughout the Americas. Reflecting different experiences and ways of being in the world, and comprising a vast range of dance styles and movement vocabularies, Native dances ultimately remind people of their connection to all living things and unite people with the world around them. Whether invoking clouds, rain, growth, ancestral spirits, or hunter’s prey—or even fusing intercultural histories—Native dances express core beliefs about the world and the most fundamental relationships upon which life depends.

—Cécile R. Ganteaume, Curator

Cécile R. Ganteaume is the curator of the Circle of Dance  exhibition. She is also the curator of the exhibition An Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian, on view at NMAI–New York, and the editor of its accompanying book. She is a recipient of a 2011 Smithsonian Secretary’s Excellence in Research Award. She joined the National Museum of the American Indian when it was established as part of the Smithsonian.