'It's about solidifying that we're here': Hoop dance world championship returns to Phoenix

·6 min read

The World Championship Hoop Dance Contest returned Saturday and Sunday for its 32nd edition to the Heard Museum with 100 competitors and around 6,000 spectators, the organizers confirmed on Wednesday, after last year's competition was online due to COVID-19.

Hoop dance was originally part of a healing ceremony, and it has become a tradition in Indigenous culture. Each year, dancers from over 30 tribes across North America and whose ages range from 6 to over 40 years participate in the two-day competition, according to Dan Hagerty, director of strategic development and programming at the Heard Museum.

Competitors — who are divided into youth, teen, adult and senior divisions — had to make it through two rounds to reach the final. Judges decided the winners based on precision, timing and rhythm, showmanship, creativity and speed.

The elected youth champion was Jai’po Harvier with Mateo Ulibarri and Naiche Duncan as first and second runner-ups respectively in that division. Shadé Phea Young won in the teen division, while Mitchell Shonkwaiataroroks Gray placed as first runner-up and Joseph Romero as second runner-up.

Sampson Sixkiller Sinquah won in the adult division, with Beany John and Talon Duncan placing as the first runner-up and second runner-up respectively. In the senior division, the elected champion was Derrick Suwaima Davis. The first runner-up was Terry Goedel and the second runner-up was Dallas Arcand.

The three top dancers in each division received prizes ranging from $250 to $5,000.

However, according to Moontee Sinquah from the Hopi, Tewa and Choctaw tribes, the essence of the event is not about the money or the competition, but the camaraderie among dancers.

"It's about all those people that come back every year. The singers, the dancers, the families, you just love to see them again," Sinquah said. "And we're not dancing against each other. We're dancing against the drums. "

Sinquah, who has been able to dance with up to 69 hoops and is a three-time world champion in the senior division, said he is happy to see the competition "alive again" after its virtual format.

Beany John competes in the adult division at the 32nd Annual World Championship Hoop Dancing Contest at the Heard Museum on March 26, 2022, in Phoenix.
Beany John competes in the adult division at the 32nd Annual World Championship Hoop Dancing Contest at the Heard Museum on March 26, 2022, in Phoenix.

Beany John from the Kehewin Cree Nation said one of the reasons performing online was hard was because it lacked that interaction with the public. Over the weekend as participants danced to the beat of the drums and the vocals of the 10 to 12 singers while creating designs with their hoops, spectators gathered in a circle, clapped and cheered at them.

For John, that interaction plays a factor in the performance just as the music does.

“The drum gives you your dance and the vocals give you your story, but the energy is the audience, like they're the ones that keep you going when you think you're about to get tired,” John said. “They keep you going when you maybe made a mistake. They're the ones that keep you right in the game.”

'Like looking at a book with no words'

With the dances John said she was able to find a voice and a way to express herself when she was shy. But the meaning of the stories she has learned to tell are also up to the audience, she said.

“It's up to the audience to come up with a story in their mind, so it's almost like you're playing with the audience,” John said. “You're telling a story, but you're letting the audience come up with their own story by seeing the picture. It's almost like looking at a book with no words."

John, who has been hoop dancing for about 22 years, couldn’t stop smiling while surrounded with the energy and enthusiasm that attendees were showing during the event. She was proud of the dance she did with red hoops to represent the healing properties that she said red willow has. Before knowing she would place second in the adult division, she said while it was a competition, she was there for the fun.

However, competitors and attendees agreed that dancing in the Phoenix heat for five to seven minutes with everyone watching was not an easy task.

Joey Simms, a Virginia resident who was visiting family in Phoenix, attended the competition even though he had never heard about hoop dancing. He left impressed with the techniques, the creativity and the experience that each dancer showed.

“It's got a great deal of difficulty to it. I can't imagine actually trying to do a minute of that dance right there,” Simms said.

A showcase of Indigenous culture and traditions

Roilana Morgan dances with hoops around her arms during the Hoop Dance Contest held at the Heard Museum in Phoenix on March 26, 2022.
Roilana Morgan dances with hoops around her arms during the Hoop Dance Contest held at the Heard Museum in Phoenix on March 26, 2022.

Pressure also factors into the performance, according to Sinquah. The moment a dancer is in the middle of the circle waiting for the stopwatch and beat to start with the hoops organized on the floor and ready to be picked up, can be intense even for people who have danced for years. Sinquah said one wrong move can stop them from moving to the next round.

But it is also an opportunity to showcase traditions from their tribes that they hope to pass down to future generations. Children start hoop dancing at very young ages, such as those who were under 5 and participated in the grand entry of the competition.

Attendee Candace Palmer, who had been wanting to go to the event for a couple of years after seeing a hoop dance, said one of her favorite aspects of the competition was how people from all ages were involved in celebrating their culture.

“That's probably like the piece I like the best, because it’s the older generations sharing their cultures with the younger generation and that’s kind of helping keep that alive,” Palmer said. “They’re all very good.”

Robert Suqnevahya and Kevin Sekakuku drum and sing during the Hoop Dance Contest held at the Heard Museum in Phoenix on March 26, 2022.
Robert Suqnevahya and Kevin Sekakuku drum and sing during the Hoop Dance Contest held at the Heard Museum in Phoenix on March 26, 2022.

Sinqua said his children have been dancing since they were about 4 years old. He said he has taught them the dance is about carrying on traditions and remembering the difficulties their ancestors had to endure and the barriers they had to get past for them to be able to continue dancing.

"We dance for those who can't dance, those who want to dance, and most importantly, we dance for our ancestors and everything else that's alive," Sinqua said.

The competition is also a way to remind people that native people are still present and have a culture to share, John said.

“It's about solidifying that we are here, we are adapting, we're changing, but at the same time, we're still keeping this story alive," John said. "And that's what it's all about for any Indigenous people from all over, it’s about practicing and passing it down.”

Those who get to see the competition and are captivated by the hoop designs, the regalia, vocals or the steps matching the beat of the drums, might even catch an interest to learn more about Indigenous cultures.

“That's why it's so important is to get people who haven't heard or who think that Indigenous people aren't around,” John said. “I just think it gives just that little window into what we do. So it allows everyone to look in and be like, ‘Well, I want to know more.’”

Reach breaking news reporter Angela Cordoba Perez at Angela.CordobaPerez@Gannett.com or on Twitter @AngelaCordobaP.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Hoop dance world championship returns to Heard Museum in Phoenix