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Thunderbirds Soar in Dazzling Native American Dance Display

by Bonnie Rosenstock
February 8, 2016
Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue
New York, NY 10003
(212) 254-1109
In what has become a longstanding annual event, now in its 41st year, the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers Dance Concert and Pow-Wow have returned to Theater for the New City for two winter weekends. The all-volunteer troupe brings their colorful regalia, pageantry, dance, music, song and traditions to entrance audiences of all ages and diverse backgrounds.

The Thunderbird American Indian Dancers are the oldest resident Native American dance company in the Big Apple. It was founded in 1963 by ten Native American men and women, first generation New Yorkers, whose parents—Mohawk, Hopi, Winnebago and San Blas—were born on reservations. One of its co-founders, Louis Mofsie (Hopi/Winnebago), 79, the troupe’s artistic director and oldest member, is the personable emcee who delivers fascinating introductory explanations of the dances.

As the audience enters the theater, they are welcomed by the vocalizations and driving beats of the Heyna Second Sons Singers and the Ensemble on the communal drum. The dozen dancers who compose the troupe come from various Native American heritages and professions.

The first dance was the Iroquois Robin Dance. “It’s in preparation for the coming spring,” Mofsie said, ”as robins are one of the first birds you see after the long winter.” The dance is characterized by hop-like steps.

The Stomp Dance (Southeastern tribes) harks back to the tragic years of the residential boarding schools in which Native American youngsters were taken from their families. Mofsie explained that they were forced to cut their hair and forbidden to practice their Native religions and to speak their languages. Since the boys and girls came from many different tribes, they created songs (surreptitiously) with vocables (sounds) and some English words, to communicate their feelings. “It was the beginning of rap,” quipped Mofsie. This piece is from the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, founded in 1884. It became Haskell Indian Nations University in 1993, a federally funded tuition-free accredited institution that offers associate and four-year bachelor’s degrees, and has a current student body representing nearly 140 tribal nations and Alaska Native communities.

The renowned storyteller Matoaka Little Eagle (Santo Domingo/Tewa, from New Mexico) related in marvelous detail a Lenape tale of how the rainbow crow with an enchanting singing voice got its shiny black color and gruff caw. There was also a Smoke Dance (Iroquois), with warriors striking a stick on the ground and recounting their victories and greatness and then driving smoke out through their bark longhouse smoke hole. In the Men’s Traditional Dance, warriors sneak up on their enemies. The Jingle Dance (Great Plains), which began as a healing dance, is performed by women in jangling dresses. The Grass Dance (Great Plains) depicts the crushing down of tall grasses in order to put up tents. Mofsie explained that the migratory tribes followed the buffalo, which was the source of food, clothing, hide, spoons, knives and needles; their ribs were used to make sleds.

In the riveting Deer Dance (Yaqui tribes of Southern Arizona), a performer outfitted in a deer headdress approaches a watering hole, sees the hunter, but cannot escape his deadly arrow. The hunter honors the deer for providing sustenance to his people.

The trio who performed the Eagle Dance (Hopi) was extraordinary in their long-spanned fluttering wings. Mofsie explained that this was mistakenly called a Rain Dance. “It’s what we call prayer dances to bring rain. You can’t make rain,” he said. “The Hopis were agricultural people. When they saw an eagle circling in the sky in certain patterns, it was a sign of rain, so the dancers mimicked the movements.”

In the Oklahoma tribes, men danced fast in the inside of a circle, while the women slow danced on the outside. However, after World War II, in which both Native American men and women served, women insisted on dancing as fast as the men. Thus, nowadays the Men’s and Women’s Fancy Dances have similar footwork, related Mofsie.

The spectacular Hoop Dance (Taos Pueblo, New Mexico), featuring Marie Poncé (Cherokee/Lucayan Taino from the Bahamas) and Michael Dancing Wolf (Choctaw), was accompanied by a guitarist, a modern touch. Poncé learned hoop dancing from Mofsie and Michael. “After, I allowed the hoop to teach me,” she said.

Michael Dancing Wolf, 51, has been performing Native Dance for 18 years and the Hoop Dance for 12. He uses six to eight hoops, but said that some use up to 38. He’s also a modern dancer and likes to combine the two dance forms. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. As he prayed, the answer came to him not to do chemotherapy, but only radiation, he related to me. His doctors told him he would never sing or dance again. He used Native American herbs, sweat lodge and energetic therapies and called on his Native family to pray for him in all four directions. “Being in these ways, I have come back,” he said. “We [in the troupe] are a family. The Great Spirit took care of me.”

The 90-minute program also included a Round Dance in the evening performances, where audience members join the dancers onstage and learn some basic steps. Matinees feature a Contest Dance for kids.

All TNC box office proceeds benefit the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers Scholarship Fund, which is the sole support of scholarships for Native American students who do not live on reservations and, therefore, are ineligible for federal assistance. To date, more than 400 scholarships have been granted.

Thunderbird American Indian Dancers will perform from February 5 to 14. Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm; Sundays at 3 pm. Evening shows, $10; matinee, kids under 12, $1, accompanied by an adult, $10. All performances are recommended for kids ages 5 and up. For information about upcoming events, visit www.thunderbirdamericanindiandancers.org

Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock


Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock

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