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According to Doolittle and Elton (114), dances played a significant role in the lives of the Native Americans. The Plains Indians had a spectacular culture characterized by ceremonies and rituals. According to the Native Americans, the gods and spirits taught them different dances that they could use to express their feelings and thoughts (Doolittle & Elton 114). After very many years, the people combined different dancing styles thus developing new ones. One of the first styles was the Grass Dance. Historians believe that the Grass Dance emerged during the early years of The Reservation Period among the warrior societies. Soon, the dance spread to other tribes through songs and regalia. The Grass Dance eventually developed to become the powwow dance. This paper, therefore, uses Deidre Sklar’s premises to discuss the cultural importance of the Grass Dance.
The Cultural Importance of the Grass Dance
In the article “Five Premises for a Culturally Sensitive Approach to Dance,” Sklar presents five unique premises essential for placing dance in its proper cultural context (Sklar 30). Such premises can help ethnographers conceptualize and look at dance from different perspectives thus placing it in its proper cultural context. The premises are relevant because they help scholars describe the cultural importance of different movements and dances.
The first premise offered by Sklar is that “movement knowledge is necessarily a kind of cultural knowledge (Sklar 30)”. According to the article, people move in a similar manner. This is comparable to the way they speak or walk. That being the case, dance is not complex but “a way of knowing”. The movements exhibited by people in different congregations tend to portray their cultural realities and religious opinions. Body postures always present a sense of cultural awareness and knowledge. It thus becomes clear that, the way people move is something more than science or art. Therefore, the Grass Dance was originally an embodiment of knowledge and cultural awareness among the Plains Indians.
According to Sklar (30), what used to be the warrior dance eventually evolved to become the Grass Dance among the natives. The movement remained an essential part of the native’s culture. It was practiced during celebrations and rituals. The dance was also common during times of happiness. The warrior dance was unique because it brought all the warriors together. The dance helped them exchange their regalia and music, something that described their cultural ideas and foundations. The Grass Dance presents unique movements that are cultural sensitive. This movements, music, and attire are critical in the study of the American native culture. That being the case, the study of the Grass Dance using this premise places it in its proper context.
The other premise, according to Sklar, states that “movement knowledge is purely kinesthetic, conceptual and emotional (Sklar 31)”. The Grass Dance is a stylized movement that forms an important part of the Native American culture. This kind of dance embodies contemporary ideas about life and the questions that define it (Powers 38). The dance also says many things about the concepts and practices of the Plains Indians. This second premise by Sklar explores the emotions triggered by different cultural movements and dances. Dances, according to Sklar, are movements that arouse different emotions and ideas.
Dances involve emotions and human feelings thus making them an important part of people’s traditions. The Grass Dance was widely used to compose war songs. This explains that the movement of the dance was meaningful to the natives. This explains why habitual patterns associated with specific emotions have always been part of the music and dance. According to Doolittle and Elton (114), the Grass Dance presents the first signs of a society that was moving from sacred music to secular music. This sudden change of the dance to secular emerged after the white audiences thought that it was a ‘war dance.’
During the period, conditions on performance and reservation worsened especially due to the increasing number of whites settling in America. This led to the establishment of a new religion. Majority of the natives would gather for the dance thus establishing a unique culture. However, the Grass Dance was widely suppressed because the settlers in America at the period began to prohibit the cultural practices of the natives (Powers 94). It is agreeable that the second premise by Sklar explains the importance of the dance to the people. The Grass Dance was a sign of unification and ceremony among the natives.
The other important premise by Sklar is the fifth. In his article, Sklar states: “movement is one of the outstanding corporeal experiences (Sklar 31)”. The Grass Dance has a unique movement that is purely symbolic and emotional. When a person puts his body through different motions by dancing or jumping, it becomes possible to say many things without using words. This explains why movement forms a corporeal experience. After dancing, individuals experience something new that defines their cultural beliefs and ideas. This knowledge helps produce a new understanding and taste that is hard to say in words (Sklar 32).
This premise offered by Sklar explains why movement says a lot about the emotional connections and ideas held by individuals in a given culture. The use of kinesthetic techniques can offer new ideas and insights about individuals’ culture and traditions. The Grass Dance presents such movements thus defining the cultural ideas and attributes of the Native Americans. Historical evidences show clearly how the dance evolved from one form of music to another especially after the settlement of the Europeans. The study of the Grass Dance using the three premises helps the reader understand the cultural values and rituals of the Plains Indians (Powers 59). Ethnographers can easily understand the cultural positions of different groups by looking at their movements such as religious practices and traditional dances.
Deidre Sklar’s article “Five Premises for a Culturally Sensitive Approach to Dance” offers numerous insights and ideas that can help ethnographers understand the cultural importance of different Native American dances. The above discussion encourages scholars and ethnographers to consider movement and cultural performance as a conceptual and emotional experience. This will definitely result in cultural learning. The above three premises support the idea that human movement and dance will always embody cultural ideas and knowledge. Whenever wringing about the Grass Dance, it becomes necessary to look at different aspects of the practice and not just the movement. In conclusion, ethnographers can place different dances and movements within their proper cultural context using the specific premises presented by Sklar in his article.
Doolittle, Lisa. & Elton, Heather. “Medicine of the Brave: A Look at the Changing Role of Dance in Native Culture from the Buffalo Days to the Modern Powwow.” Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader. Ed. Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001. 114-126. Print.
Powers, William. War Dance: Plains Indian Musical Performance. New York: Longman, 2003. Print.
Sklar, Deidre. “Five Premises for a Culturally Sensitive Approach to Dance.” Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader. Ed. Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001. 30-32. Print.