An Introduction to Pueblo Dance

By Emmaly Wiederholt

A couple of years ago, while lounging around my parents’ house in New Mexico over Christmas, I decided I wanted to go see some Pueblo dances. What is a Pueblo dance? The Pueblo people are Native Americans from the Southwestern United States. There are twenty-one different Pueblo communities: one in Arizona, one in Texas, and nineteen in New Mexico. While they all fall under the heading of “Pueblo,” each Pueblo is distinctive culturally, and in some ways linguistically. Traditional Pueblo dwellings are typically adobe houses built on top of one another around a plaza.

On feast days, which vary from Pueblo to Pueblo, dances are often performed. Because what is now the great state of New Mexico was once at the mercy of Spanish missionaries, many of the Pueblos were forced to convert to Catholicism. As a result, many of the Pueblos hold dances on Christmas day. Thus since I was home for Christmas, fate deemed it do-able for me to see a Pueblo dance.

My family packed inside our minivan and headed toward Pojoaque, a Pueblo located north of Santa Fe outside a little town called Espanola. We parked on the side of the road and walked into the plaza, and behold! Dance! Though not like anything I’d ever come across in my many years pursuing dance. There were fifty or more men, all wearing incredibly innate costumes that were mainly black, brown, and white, with vibrant red accents. They were doing a slow march of sorts to drums. We stayed for almost an hour and the dance varied little. It was slow, repetitive, precise, and clearly not created with us audience in mind. There was no showing off, nor any desire to be in the limelight. This, obviously, was a communion with the land and the community, and it didn’t matter if we gringos were watching or not.

The next year my family decided once again to seek out Pueblo dance on Christmas day. This time we headed up the road from Pojoaque to Santa Clara Pueblo, located right outside Espanola. This dance was completely different.  Again, it was a dance for all men, but the somber air was gone. This dance was colorful, with ribbons flying in the sunny winter air. One dancer, a leader of sorts, jumped and leapt about, seemingly tireless. Like at Pojoaque, the dance was incredibly repetitive and lengthy, which made the jumping all the more impressive.

I came away very curious about these dances. Who were the dancers? In my realm of dance, men are few and far between. To see a whole community of men partaking in a ritualistic dance with the utmost seriousness is something American culture doesn’t see much of. I was also blown away by the rigor required of the dancers. These were long dances with exacting precise steps involved. Who were these people who would go to such great lengths to learn and execute a dance? But most of all, I was intrigued by the performance quality. While the Santa Clara Pueblo dance had a greater air of merriment and spectacle than the Pojoaque Pueblo dance (and here I’m guessing each Pueblo has many types of dances that vary for different occasions), both Pueblos clearly saw the performance aspect as beside the point. They were there to commune with their land and people; entertainment was not a factor.

As you might know, I run this website you’re reading, Stance On Dance, and I decided it was time I integrated some other forms of dance into it beyond Westernized contemporary and classical forms, and what better place to start than in my home state with something I’ve experienced firsthand. I didn’t want to approach ethnic dance as though it was a museum artifact, and I wanted to evaluate it with the same rigor as I do Western dance. I emailed the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center a series of questions, and here is their response. I hope to expand conversation about dance outside the purview I most associate with, so here’s a start.

Emmaly Wiederholt: What role do traditional Pueblo dances play today?

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center: In today’s world, the dances performed by the Pueblos are as relevant as they have been throughout time and immemorial. It is an expression of gratitude for life and a transmittance of prayers for peace and prosperity for all living creatures on earth. Traditional Pueblo dances and songs are a connection to our ancestors, our community, our way of life, and more importantly to our belief system. Please note, each of the nineteen Pueblos in New Mexico may appear to be similar in some ways, and can be linked through language, but are very unique culturally.

EW: How are the dances passed down from generation to generation?

IPCC: Throughout the year, many dances (both public and private), are done in conjunction with the seasons, religious prescriptions, and it is expected by each family to participate in the dances held within their respective villages. The elders begin teaching children as young as two years old to dance and sing. As the youth become older, some are identified and selected to be mentored and taught the traditional Pueblo ways. There are families and clans within a Pueblo community who are bestowed the responsibility to maintain the traditional elements of Pueblo Indian culture – the dances, the songs, and the drums are among them.

EW: How did the dance steps come to be?

IPCC: It is believed The Creator ultimately provided the Pueblo people with these gifts (the dances, songs and drum), including the ability to use these gifts for the good of all Pueblo people. Pueblo dance movements are intentional and have purpose in their execution.

EW: Who is meant to watch the dances?

IPCC: In most cases, the dances conducted in each Pueblo community, is for them. Some Pueblo communities have their own requirements on who is allowed to view their dances. It is their right to determine the rules and guidelines. However, during annual Pueblo Feast Days held in honor of their Catholic patron saint, each Pueblo community allows and invites visitors from all walks of life into their village to view the dances. Photography and other recording of dances should not be conducted. We suggest that people remember what they saw and heard remain solely in their hearts and minds to be revisited each year when they visit the Pueblo. There are public venues where the Pueblo dance groups share certain kinds of seasonal social dances. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is one such venue where visitors can experience dances in a public setting.

EW: Have you noticed an increase in outsiders wanting to watch the traditional dances?

IPCC: People unfamiliar with any indigenous culture are intrigued to learn more about the people they see – their clothing, their language, their dances and songs. From the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center perspective, Pueblo Indian dances are distinct and very unique from the general misguided notion that all American Indians dance and look like Plains Indians (to some, it may be known as a “Pow-Wow” style). The interest in the dance performances we offer at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center each week has not diminished. Dance group performances at the Center allow our visitors to interact with the dancers after the performance and learn more about the different types of dances being performed and the regalia the groups wear.

Photos Courtesy the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center