What is the history of hoop dancing?

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What is the history of hoop dancing?

Hello! Thank you for your request to provide you with the history of hoop dancing. The short version is that hoop dancing has its roots in Native American culture as a component of a healing ceremony. It has evolved into an activity that has various purposes, including for entertainment, education, competition, and even as a treatment for depression. You will find a deep dive of my findings below.


To research your request, I followed your preferred search strategy and started with Google. A basic search of "hoop dance history" brought up many relevant results. After reading through several sources, I chose three that would form the basis of my analysis. Then, I expanded my search to include modern hoop dancing, hoop dancing for healing purposes, and hoop dancing activities. These searches resulted in sources that explain how hoop dancing is viewed and used today.


As with most Native American legends, there is no clear origin for the hoop dance. However, there are several stories that have been passed down orally from generation to generation that seek to explain the hoop dance roots.

1. Several Native American communities believe the hoop dance was sent by the Creator to a dying man so that he could give the world a lasting gift before he passed on.

2. Southwest Native American tribes believe that their cliff-dwelling ancestors created hoop dancing to provide their children with a way to gain better dexterity.

3. The most popular story originated with the Anishinaabe culture and tells the tale of a boy that was born into their tribe who was different from other boys. He did not enjoy running, hunting or any other activity that was expected of young males. Instead, he preferred to spend his time alone so that he could quietly observe animals in nature. His father was displeased with his son's lack of interest in traditional male activities and therefore disowned him. In fact, he gave his son the name of Pukawiss "meaning 'disowned' or 'unwanted'." The boy did not let his father's disdain stop him from watching the way that animals moved. Eventually, he began to emulate their movements and created the hoop dance to celebrate their graceful motions. The other children in the tribe saw him dancing and begged him to teach them the dance, which he did. Pukawiss became a popular figure in his tribe because everyone enjoyed learning the dance and watching the boy perform for the community.

Pukawiss and many Native American generations to follow used the hoop dance as a method of storytelling. The dance itself involves between one and 50 hoops "made of reeds or wood, [and] are used to create symbolic shapes, including butterflies, turtles, eagles, flowers, and snakes." The dance was "generally performed by a solo dancer who begins with a single hoop, evoking the circle of life. Additional hoops are added representing other life elements, including humans, animals, wind, water, and seasons." There are many rapid movements, as the dancer continuously interlocks the hoops to resemble wings or tails.

The hoop dance evolved into an important part of traditional healing ceremonies, as "tribal healers and holy men have long regarded the hoop as sacred." The hoop became the universal Native American symbol of "the never-ending circle of life," and some holy men and women even claimed to have seen visions and ailments through hoops used in the dances.

Unfortunately, the hoop dance was nearly forgotten between the 1880s and the 1930s, when the United States federal government "tried to assimilate indigenous people (Native Americans) to the ways of the average American citizen." Native American children were sent to white schools, given American names, and were prohibited from "participating in anything associated with their Native American culture including dance." During this time, Native Americans began to unite as a culture to push back against the government's bans. Their resistance led to "the pan-Indian movement and the rebirth of their rich cultural traditions."


In the 1930s, a young Native American from the Jemez Pueblo tribe named Tony White Cloud began "using multiple hoops in a stylized version" of the hoop dance and is widely regarded as the "founder of the modern Hoop Dance." White Cloud used five hoops made out of willow that were approximately 24 inches in diameter. He "invented hoop formations to symbolize traditional designs and teachings that were a part of his culture and traditional pueblo upbringing." These formations remain the foundation of modern hoop dancing. White Cloud performed his dances at various Native American exposition and fair ceremonies throughout the United States, and other tribes began to incorporate the hoop dance in their own public performances.

White Cloud also had a very brief movie career when his performance of the hoop dance appeared in "The Valley of the Sun" starring Lucille Ball. He also traveled with Gene Autry during World War II performing the hoop dance to promote "war bonds to fund the war." White Cloud appeared in his second film, "Apache Country," starting Gene Autry in 1952.

As a result of White Cloud's resurrection of the hoop dance, it became a popular way for Native Americans to "weave stories of how all life is connected with changes and transitions." Crowds loved the movement and color as they watched "visual stories through the creation of ever-changing discernible symbols."


The popularity of the hoop dance continued to grow throughout the decades and in 1991, Ralph Zotigh, Director of Entertainment at the New Mexico State Fair Indian Village, was looking for a way to attract more crowds to the Indian Village. His son, Dennis Zotigh, suggested he hold a hoop dance competition "to see, for the first time, who was the best of the best." Following the Likert scoring system used in the Olympics, dancers would be scored between one and 10, with "one being the lowest and 10 being the highest." Each dancer would be scored in each of five categories: timing/rhythm, precision, creativeness, speed, and showmanship. The intent in using five scoring categories was to "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."

The World Championship Hoop Dance Contest was born. It was first held at the New Mexico State Fair, with Eddie Swimmer of the Cherokee tribe winning the inaugural event. The dance competition was such a success that the co-founders decided to move it to a new, larger location. Eventually, they contracted with the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona to host the second contest in 1992. The competition was renamed "the Tony White Cloud Memorial World Championship Hoop Dance Contest" as a nod to the founder of modern hoop dance. The Heard Museum continues to host the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest to this day.

Soon, hoop dance competitions were springing up "throughout Indian country, sparking a greater interest throughout North America in Hoop dancing and its evolution." Dance routines are ever-changing and "modern hoop dancers present their unique variation of the Hoop Dance along with their distinct perspective of interpretation." Dances incorporate intricate footwork and body movements as performers seek to create multiple designs "including animals, birds, deities and global symbols."

Today, hoops are made from a variety of materials, with reed and plastic hose hoops being the most popular. Willow and bois d'arc are still used to some extent, but "hoop dancers who perform frequently prefer the reed and plastic hoops because of their durability when traveling." Performers often decorate their hoops with tape and paint, marking "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."


Hoop dancing is no longer just for Native Americans. There are classes people can take to learn how to perfect a variety of hoop moves and techniques. People can even join fitness programs dedicated to using hoop dancing to lose weight, become healthier, and gain confidence. Yet, no matter how popular hooping becomes with other cultures, Native Americans continue to practice the art of hoop dancing as a connection to their past. Marijo Moore, a Native American hoop dancer said, "Why we dance? To dance is to pray. To pray is to heal. To heal is to give. To give is to live. To live is to dance."

Some Native Americans are upset with how the hoop dance has been appropriated for uses other than traditional Native American purposes. An anonymous Native American hoop dancer said, "Native American hoop dancing is many things: it is a form of storytelling, it is our culture, it is our connection to the past, it is our way of passing on knowledge from one generation to the next, it is the understanding that in a circle everything is connected, it is really knowing that some things cannot be forced, bought, or sold, it is the comfort in knowing that the dance will survive longer than us. More importantly: it is not for others to steal or appropriate." While Native Americans will proudly demonstrate their hoop dances in performances and competitions, they would rather not see their traditions become commercialized.


Recently, for many practitioners, hoop dancing has returned to its roots as a healing routine. While there is certainly joy to be had when performing and/or watching a hoop dance, more people are using the hoop to get them though difficult times and even improve their depression. For example, Lisa Clark, a hoop dancer from Seattle, Washington began using the art form to help her cope with the deaths of her mother and sister. She said, "With hooping I was having much less of that ugly sinking feeling associated with my grief. Instead, it was as if I could sink into my heart and feel closer to my Mom and sister there — I could miss them and be with them at the same time. Was that grief I was feeling? I don’t know, but it sure was healing."

Abby Albaum, from Saint Petersburg, Florida, began hoop dancing about six months after she was diagnosed with depression. She said it wasn't until she read another person's story about how hoop dancing helped him recover from depression that she "made the connection between hooping, movement meditation and mental healing." She said she "came to the realization that the same thing was happening for me. I hadn’t had a breakdown in a very long time, and I didn’t put the connection together that it might have something to do with my new-found fascination with the hoop. I knew that, while hooping, I was able to lose myself in the experience, and I always felt rejuvenated afterwards."

Clark believes that dance and music are "unique to human kind and our history," and that is why she says, "hooping could serve so many people who are dealing with anxiety, depression, grief, loss, suicidal thoughts or general life struggles." The hoop is a non-judgmental dance partner who allows her to tap into her "more natural state — a childlike nature comes out in hooping too, and it is also a part of healing — to live like a child, each day in wonder."

This healing concept associated with hoop dancing has given rise to workshops and classes that seek to help participants harmonize their "mind, body, and soul with revolutionary neurological re-pattering and restoring practices that have transformed countless lives toward new expanded ways of moving, thinking, and being." As such, hoop dance is not longer just about telling stories and mimicking the movements of animals. Instead, it has returned to its Native American roots as a mechanism for healing and spiritual health.


To wrap it up, hoop dancing has long been a part of Native American culture. Only recently has it become more popular among non-native people as an activity rather than entertainment. However, the traditional purposes behind the dance remain critical to its usage both in Native American ceremonies and in spiritual healing.

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