Powwows are American Indian events that feature, among other things, Native American dance and song. They are a celebration of heritage and traditions, and a way for Native Americans to connect with each other while keeping their culture alive through dance, song and storytelling. Most powwows are open to the public, offering opportunities to educate non-natives about their culture and traditions, including many different styles of Native American dance styles. While powwows occur year-round, most are held between Memorial Day and Labor Day throughout the US and Canada. They are an important part of Native American life and lots of fun for all who attend. For a list of Native American events, see our Native American Dance Calendar.
The Men's Grass Dance is a beautiful and flowing style, one where the grass dancers use a lot of shoulder, arm, and head movements. Powwows today classify the Grass Dance into two categories: old style and free style. The old style of Grass Dance is further divided into the American old style and Canadian old style. However, many grass dancers maintain that the dance is the same and varies only by individual interpretation. Whatever the case, Grass Dance is now one of the most competitive forms of Northern Plains dancing to be found today at powwows.
Aside from legends telling how Grass Dancing came to be (see below), origins of the Grass Dance are rooted in a more practical purpose. Before any powwows could be started the grass needed to be flattened. The Grass Dancers were the ones to do this by stomping on the tall grass and placing some of it on their belts as they danced.
Another version tells of the grass dancers who were the first to enter the dance circle, respectfully laying the grass down with their steps so the other dancers could come out and dance in the circle.
Yet another story tells of the grass dance coming from the movements of the early scouts seeking a site. The grass being high in new areas, the scouts would dance in a special way to flatten the grass and make it acceptable for a new camp or meeting site.
In another version of the origin of the Grass Dance is that the grass dancers were called out to the place where feasts and special events were to take place. The dancers blessed the ground while they danced in time with the beat of the drum. While the grass dancers danced, they flattened the grass with their feet in preparation for the ceremonies to take place.
Many believe that the Omaha tribe originated the dance in their warrior societies. The grass dance movements reflecting warrior movements such as stalking the game or enemy and fighting the enemy (including one movement representing one of the warrior's legs being staked and unable to move and battling with this leg in a held position).
The best-known origin legend of the Grass Dance comes from the Northern Plains area. It (or a version of it) tells of a young man who was born without the full use of his legs and longed to run, dance, and play with the other children. His parents consulted a Medicine Man and asked if he could help their son in some way. The Medicine Man advised the boy to fast and seek a vision on the prairie. The young man left the village and did as he was instructed. As he sat in the hot summer sun on the prairie fasting and praying, the long swaying prairie grass mesmerized him. Soon he saw himself dancing in a similar manner as the movement of the prairie grass.
He at once went back to the village and asked the Medicine Man to interpret his vision. The Elder then asked the boy's mother to help him make an outfit for the boy to dance in that utilized the long prairie grass. He showed his father how the boy would dance and a song was made for him. A celebration was held and he showed the entire village his style of dance. It was during this celebration that his legs were healed. This style of dancing eventually came to be called the Grass Dance.
Men's Grass Dance regalia, like that of other Native American dance styles, accentuates the movement of the dancer. The Grass Dance style is easy to recognize by the striking outfits, which are covered from shoulder to ankle with long, thick, bright, multi-colored fringes made of yarn or ribbon. Unlike many other men's dance styles, Grass Dancers do not wear feather bustles. The movement of Grass Dancers is marked, not by the sway of dance bustles, but by the movement of fringe and/or ribbon. This fringe and ribbon enhances their graceful movement as they sway in an imagined breeze, keeping rhythm with the drums.
Grass Dance outfit styles have trends that change from year to year, as does the dance regalia of other Native American Indian dance styles. Recent designs reflect very flashy colors, while others are more traditional.
Roach - Roach Spreader - Headband: he porky roach is the only accessory common to all styles of modern Native American Powwow dress. The shorter outside (and inside) row(s) of hair are from deer tail hair, which usually dyed. Grass dance roaches often flare out flat on top and in front, with one to two imitation eagle feathers in the spreader (rotating, not rocking). As you will note from the photos in the Grass Dance gallery, however, most of the roaches shown are more typical, rather than "flat" styles. Roach feathers can also be replaced with springs (try auto choke springs about 12" long) that feature feather fluffs at the ends. These fluff-tipped "antennae" provide a back and forth movement that blends nicely with the swaying dance style. While some dancers also use a head harness to attach their roach, most simply tie the roach on. The harness or headband is decorated with beaded rosettes in front and on the sides, with long drops on the sides made of matching beadwork, chains of plastic curtain rings, or ribbon. Sometimes loops of beads are strung from the center rosette to each side where the drops are attached, hanging down just below eye level.
Shirt & : The shirt can be almost any material, but most Grass Dancers prefer to wear a solid color sport or western shirt. Custom made shirts are usually made with a western pattern. Sleeves can be either long or short, but short sleeves are more practical as you will be warm while dancing! Decorate the shirt with yarn fringe, normally aout 12" in length. This fringe goes from the armpit in front, over the shoulder, and meets in the back of the shirt in a "V" or "W" shape, and sometimes a curve. Yarn color should contrast sharply from the shirt. The shirt can also be decorated with beaded medallions, ribbons, and small plastic curtain rings sewed directly to it. A cape (yoke), made similar to a fancy dancer's cape is made of the same color material as the shirt. The cape would be decorated with all the fringe and other items, and would be worn over an undecorated shirt.
Apron: Aprons are one of the most striking parts of the Grass Dance outfit. The front apron can be decorated with beadwork, sequins, ribbon work, felt appliqué, or a combination. This front apron can be made in a number of different shapes, and can be yarn fringed, like the shirt and pants. The back apron has several colors of ribbons sewn, in a "V" or "W" or zig-zag shapes across the apron, with loose ends hanging for 2 feet or so from each edge. Sometimes additional ribbon hangs from the center of the back apron, where the bottom of the "V" or "W" is.
Pants: Long sweat pants in a color to match the shirt are worn. Long yarn fringe is sewn onto the pants, again in a "V" or "W" pattern, at the area above and below each knee. Men's slacks can be worn, as are jogging pants that have been modified with fringe just below the knees.
Cuffs, Belt, Suspenders & Side Tabs: These are mentioned as a group to emphasize that all of these items need to somehow consist of the same pattern or theme. These are usually the last items to be added, as they can be the most time consuming to make. In recent years, both sequin work and cloth appliqué have become the style of choice, replacing beadwork. Side Tabs can be made as part of the belt, fully beaded and part of the beadwork, or separate in design. They could also be pendants (such as a school), or made of material and decorated with rossettes, beadwork, felt applique, or mirrors. If made of material, they can be deged with ribbon and fringed to match the rest of the Grass Dance outfit. keep in mind that a Grass Dance outfit with too many colors can look to busy and may take away from the desired effect.
Hand Articles: Hand articles accent your outfit and can add to the appearance of motion. These articles include: Mirror boards, Small hoops, Decorated sticks, Scarves, Feather Fans, Dream Catchers
Dance Bells: Your bells in this style are wrapped around your ankle and can be a choice of sheep bells or large sleigh bells.
Anklets: Usually made from angora goat or Icelandic sheep fur, about 2" x 12" each. Each is backed with canvas to absorb sweat, and add durability.
Moccasins: Beaded, hardsole plains style moccasins are preferred, however, you can also use sneakers or aqua socks in place of Moccasins.
Other Grass Dance Accessories: Other accessories used by Grass Dancers are: beaded tie or neck scarf worn under the shirt collar, a loop necklace or breastplate, and a beaded or bone hairpipe choker.
Crazy Crow Trading Post has long been your number one source for powwow craft supplies for your Native American dance regalia and other needs. This photo gallery represents Men's Grass Dance outfits, mostly taken at Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We thank Derek Matthews of Gathering of Nations, and others who have given permission to present these photos in this gallery.
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