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For the Thunderbird American Indians Every Dance Tells a Story

by Bonnie Rosenstock
January 31, 2015
Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue
New York, NY 10003
(212) 254-1109
Outside, the temperature dipped below freezing, but indoors at Theater for the New City, the Heyna Second Sons Singers and Ensemble warmed up the intrepid arrivals with rhythmic vocalizations and the driving drumbeats of the large communal drum. It was the 40th Annual Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, held over two weekends and eight performances, from January 30 to February 8. This was the Saturday kids' matinee—for children of all ages.

Louis Mofsie, Thunderbird's artistic director and the show's narrator, artfully guiding the audience on a journey of understanding and education through the history and highlights of each of the ten dances during the 90-minute performance. Brooklyn-born Mofsie, half Winnebago (mother from Nebraska) and half Hopi (father from Arizona), co-founded the company in 1963 with nine other first generation Native American men and women not born on a reservation; all were New Yorkers.

The Thunderbirds are the oldest resident New York City American Indian dance company and is composed of members from diverse tribal backgrounds. They volunteer their time and energy to bringing their culture to audiences throughout the United States and abroad. They also support a scholarship fund for Native American students who do not live on a reservation and therefore do not quality for a government grant. (Crystal Field, artistic director of TNC, donates the venue, and all box office proceeds benefit the fund.)

Mofsie, 78, a retired educator, told me after the sold-out performance that a lot of adults are just as uninformed about Native culture as the children. "I try to get them to understand what they were seeing," he said. "I was happy this afternoon that the children were very attentive," he added.

The show kicked off with hopes of spring, embodied in the quick, hop-like steps of the Robin Dance (New York State Iroquois), as they are one of the first birds seen after the long winter. Like a lot of the dances, this one isn't being done anymore. "Like every place, young people aren't interested in learning them," Mofsie said. He and members of the company travel individually or in groups during the year to learn from "the source," he said, and bring back dances to preserve and perform.

A heart-wrenching narrative surrounded the history of the Stomp Dance from the turn of the 20th century, a winding hand-holding circle dance of unity and common struggle. It was created by Native American kids who resided in the then Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, which opened in 1884, one of many boarding schools to which the children were taken to force assimilation. "The kids created the dance and song, which were vocals because they didn't all speak the same language," Mofsie explained. "When they weren't being watched, they would sneak away and dance. The style is similar to southeast Stomp Dance, and the vocals are interjected with English words which tell about the hardship in the boarding school."

Carlos Ponce Eagle Feathers (Mayan, Yucatan Peninsula) performed the Deer Dance (Southern Arizona Yaqui). He wore a deer head with red streamers on the antlers, carried a rattle and mimicked deer movements. The dance gives thanks to the deer and to the great creator for the food it provides. Some children were upset when a man with a bow (no arrow) mimed killing the deer, and it fell down. The deer showed signs of life at subsequent performances.

Although Michael Taylor/Dancing Wolf (Choctaw) masterfully performed the Hoop Dance (Pueblo Indians, Taos, New Mexico), he asserted that he has not yet perfected it. He has been doing it since he joined the company in 1997. Mofsie, who used to perform it when the hoops were wooden (they are now some kind of plastic), taught him. "It came from a contest dance between young men," Taylor said. "Now it's spread to being a huge contest dance in Phoenix, where women are winning the top prizes also. For some, they do the dance to symbolize progression and evolution through their life. It's not just a physical thing, but also spirit."

The Hoop Dance is usually a solo that shows off the creative skills of the dancer, but here it was a mesmerizing duet, almost call-and-response, between Taylor and Marie Poncé, neé McKinney (Cherokee/Seminole).

The program also featured storyteller Matoaka Little Eagle (Santo Domingo/Tewa, New Mexico) who enacted the Boogie Woman, who was evil, dirty, smelled bad and ate children, a traditional tale told during the long winter months to scare kids into behaving. She learned it from master storyteller Johnny Moses/Walking Medicine Robe, a Tulalip from Washington State, who gave her permission to relate it. "I love telling stories, just like my father and brother. I especially love telling stories to children," she said.

At age 15, Ciarán Tufford (Irish/Mayan, Belize) is the youngest member of the company. When he was three, he went to his first pow-wow. His aunts, sisters Julian and Kitty Gabourel, also company members, were so impressed with his ability to follow the steps of the Grass Dance (Great Plains) that they presented him to Mofsie, and the youngster has been in the company ever since. He commutes from Alexandria, Va., for rehearsals and performances. He appeared in all but three of the dances and helped demonstrate the Contest Dance (Winnebago), which consists of a feather on a stick on a stand on the floor that you must pick up with your teeth. Kids over age seven were invited to participate, with great hilarity and success. In the evening concert, there is a participatory Round Dance for adults, the sole difference between the two programs.

Ché Bryant, 13, and her sister Zoe, 11, both budding dancers, loved the show. "It had a lot of movement, and they expressed themselves nicely," Ché said. Zoe's favorite dances were the Hoop Dance and "when the mom had to make a dance so her daughter wouldn't be sick," she said of the Jingle Dress Dance (Great Plains), originally a healing dance. No surprise. Their mother Zabrina is a nurse.

For more information about the Thunderbirds and upcoming programs, go to https://thunderbirdamericanindiandancers.wordpress.com/
POW-WOW—Louis Mofsie is Master of Ceremonies in Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 9, 2014.

POW-WOW—Louis Mofsie is Master of Ceremonies in Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 9, 2014.

Photo © & courtesy of Jonathan Slaff


Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' 40th annual Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, Theater for the New City, 2015. Stomp Dance.

Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' 40th annual Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, Theater for the New City, 2015. Stomp Dance.

Photo © & courtesy of Rosalie Baijer


Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' 40th annual Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, Theater for the New City, 2015. Hoop Dance Duet with Michael Taylor - Dancing Wolf (Choctaw/French) and Marie McKinney (Cherokee and Seminole).

Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' 40th annual Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, Theater for the New City, 2015. Hoop Dance Duet with Michael Taylor - Dancing Wolf (Choctaw/French) and Marie McKinney (Cherokee and Seminole).

Photo © & courtesy of Rosalie Baijer


POW-WOW—Hunter (Ciaran Tufford, Mayan/Cherokee) blesses his prey (Carlos Ponce, Mayan) in Deer Dance in Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 9, 2014.

POW-WOW—Hunter (Ciaran Tufford, Mayan/Cherokee) blesses his prey (Carlos Ponce, Mayan) in Deer Dance in Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 9, 2014.

Photo © & courtesy of Lee Wexler


POW-WOW—Matoaka Little Eagle performs as a storyteller in Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 9, 2014.

POW-WOW—Matoaka Little Eagle performs as a storyteller in Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 9, 2014.

Photo © & courtesy of Jonathan Slaff


Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' 40th annual Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, Theater for the New City, 2015.

Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' 40th annual Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, Theater for the New City, 2015.

Photo © & courtesy of Rosalie Baijer


Children reaching for the feather prize in the Contest Dance, January 31, 2015

Children reaching for the feather prize in the Contest Dance, January 31, 2015

Photo © & courtesy of Bonnie Rosenstock

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