Sights and Sounds from Heard Museum Hoop Dancing

Every year since 1992, the Heard Museum Hoop Dancing World Championships have been held the second weekend in February. The World Championship Hoop Dance Contest takes place in downtown Phoenix Saturday and Sunday. More than 100 hoop dancers from across Turtle Island–North America– compete in five age divisions from Tiny Tots (under five) to seniors (over 40).

Competitors are scored by a panel of five judges on a range of criteria: precision, timing & rhythm, showmanship, creativity/originality and speed. A $5,000 prize will be awarded to the adult division champion–the world champion hoop dancer. The contest runs from 9 AM to approximately 5 PM both days.

For the Heard Museum hoop dancing event, the museum provides a venue and logistical support only; it’s the community of hoop dancers who organize and run the event. While other hoop dance competitions are held throughout what is now called the United States and Canada, this event is recognized as premiere in the field.

“This event is completely rooted in being a reflection of the hoop dance community, that’s the most important thing to the Heard Museum,” Dan Hagerty, Heard Museum Director of Strategic Development & Programs, told Forbes.com. “It’s about serving this hoop dance community in a really meaningful way, also celebrating their talent and their ability with the entire community.”

More than 5,000 spectators attend the Heard Museum hoop dancing championships.

Competitive Hoop Dancing

Nedallas Hammill (Navajo, Ho-Chunk) competes at 2022 World Championship Hoop Dance Contest hosted by Heard Museum in Phoenix.
Nedallas Hammill (Navajo, Ho-Chunk) competes at 2022 World Championship Hoop Dance Contest hosted by Heard Museum in Phoenix. Courtesy HEARD MUSEUM

Hoop dance rituals among Native American societies, of course, predate competitions. Many tribes incorporated them into healing ceremonies. Indigenous cultures worldwide place deep significance upon the circle, the hoop. The circular nature of life, the cycle of the seasons, day and night, male and female.

Hoop dancing as a spectator sport originated with Tony Whitecloud (Jemez Pueblo) who put on performances for tourists and travelled across America from the 1930s to 50s introducing Natives and non-Natives alike to the practice. He became a role model, inspiring Indigenous young people to give it a try.

The dances do more than demonstrate physical dexterity and endurance, they tell stories, share culture, promote pride in indigeneity.

Over the decades, interest in participating and watching hoop dancing grew, and in 1991, the first World Championship Hoop Dance Contest was held at the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque. Seeking a venue where the event could stand alone, the championship moved to the Heard Museum the following year and has been held there ever since. The Heard’s “day job,” so to speak, is serving as the world’s finest museum devoted exclusively to the presentation of Native American art. A ticket to the hoop dance championship includes admission to the museum as well.

Heard Museum Hoop Dance Competition

Native American hoop dancing is a feast for both the eyes and ears. Competitors perform in fantastic customary regalia, many pieces handmade, months in construction. Their garments and bodies are adorned with deer toe and turtle shell rattles and other noise makers to keep rhythm with the beat.

Drummers and singers provide the beat, their role as essential to the practice as the dancers themselves.

Long after the Heard Museum hoop dancing competition has ended, the drum beat remains fixed in the soul.

“From a personal perspective, after spending the weekend listening to the music that our drummers and singers provide, it’s a very healing experience, it’s a physical experience, and these singers and drummers are the best in their field,” Hagerty said.

Singers and dancers are typically accompanied by family members. Many return year after year giving the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest a reunion feel.

Eric Manuelito (Diné) has served as Arena Director every year since the event moved to the Heard.

“My two favorite parts bookend the whole event. On Saturday morning, the contest begins with a category of dancers called tiny tots–they don’t get judged, it’s not a competitive division the way the other ones are–and when we invite them to come out and bring their hoops and dance, they’re just beautiful,” Hagerty said. “They are the youngest members of the hoop community and oftentimes you’ll see babies in a mother’s arms or father’s arms, so that to me represents the future of this contest and community. The other is the final rounds on Sunday. The final rounds are always electric, everybody’s on the edge of their seats, rooting on their favorite dancer and cheering for everybody. That moment where we announce the winners is always emotional and special.”

Legends

Just like other professional sports, hoop dancing has its legends. Early pioneers like Whitecloud. Sammy Baugh or Bill Russell would be equivalents.

Derrick Davis (Hopi and Choctaw) would be akin to Michael Jordan or Tom Brady–the GOAT (greatest of all time). He took home the adult division title in 1994, ‘96, ‘97 and ‘98. Then again in 2010, 2013 and 2014. Most champions win multiple years.

Nakotah LaRance (Tewa, Hopi, Navajo and Assiniboine), perhaps Gayle Sayers due to the brilliance and brevity of his career. Maybe Barry Sanders, if Sanders had died at 30-years-old after claiming three world titles as LaRance did in the adult category at the Heard Museum hoop dancing championships before passing as the result of an accident in 2020.

LaRance performed with Circe du Soleil; his obituary appeared in both the USA Today and The New York Times. Mention of his name continues to be spoken with great reverence. His legacy lives on with the Lightning Boy Foundation Hoop Dancers.

No football equivalent exists for Lisa Odjig (Odawa-Ojibwe). In hoop dancing, women compete with the men, and while women routinely win youth or teen championships, Odjig is the only woman in the history of the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest to conquer the adult division. She did so twice, in 2000 and 2003.

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