A few weeks ago, Michael and I loaded Tanner the fluffy puppy into our SUV and headed down to the Santa Fe Plaza for a hoop dancing exhibition. The group, headed by eminent Hopi jeweler Steve LaRance and his son Cree LaRance, agreed to a performance for tourists and locals alike. The dancers were learning hoop dancing from their instructors, and wanted to demonstrate the skills that they had learned. As always, we are very appreciative when we are able to absorb some Native American culture, so this was just what we were seeking for a spring Saturday afternoon.

The weather was comfortable, except for a brisk wind roaring up the valley from the south. As the hoop dancers were gathering and warming up, a brief shower sent everyone scurrying for cover. But, as the expression goes, the show must go on, so the dancers regrouped and put on a stunning performance.

Hoop dancing began generations ago, as an individual show dance that combines both motion and poses. Tony White Cloud of Jemez Pueblo is credited with the start of modern hoop dancing. It has been adopted by many Native American cultures around the United States and Canada, and each dancer creates an individual choreographed dance.

We first saw a hoop dancing demonstration at the Heard Museum in Scottsdale, which is also where the International Hoop Dancing Championships are held. The first large competition was in 1991 at the New Mexico State fair, and today it has grown to significant importance with crowds of thousands watching the Championships.

Dancers use hoops traditionally constructed by hand of willow branches, though today plastic tubing is a more durable substitute. Dancers will use up to four or five dozen of the 24” diameter hoops in a single dance evolution. The hoops are often combined to form representational images, such as an eagle soaring or a butterfly flapping its wings. The dances are typical of most Native American dances, in that they are generally emotionally reserved with small steps and motions utilized. The dancers use the beats of the hand-held drum and chanting to give them pace, and this adds an additional element of beauty to the dance.

In competitions, dancers are judged on the precision of their movements, the creativity of their poses, the speed and timing of the motions, and overall showmanship of the dance. Dancers are encouraged to begin at a young age, and we saw the most adorable very young girl stepping through her hoop at the Santa Fe Plaza performance. As with the more traditional dances, the hoop dances can tell stories about the culture and natural surroundings of the dancer. The dances are learned at an early age, and skills are developed over decades of practice and innovation. The senior division of the International Hoop Dancing Championships (age 40 and over) is my favorite, as the dancers have a natural elegance and harnessed energy that reaches out over the crowd like a comforting embrace. I also love that hoop dancing is performed by both boys and girls, giving each gender an equal opportunity to excel.

We got to know more about hoop dancing over the past few years through Steve’s son Nakota, who was a superbly gifted hoop dancer before his untimely passing in 2020. Nakota had grown up with a knowledge of the traditional dances of his pueblo, but saw his first hoop dance at an early age and fell in love with it. His talent led him to a three-year engagement as the lead dancer in a Cirque du Soleil show, Totem, and he received international recognition for his artistic skills. Nakota was a world champion in every age category he was eligible to enter, and videos of his performances still take my breath away.

Nakota befriended a young boy by the name of Valentino Rivera, who took to the skills of hoop dancing with unbridled enthusiasm. Sadly, Valentino passed away at the age of 8, and Steve and his family worked with Valentino’s mother Felicia Rosacker-Riversa, to set up the Lightning Boy Foundation in his memory to encourage other Native American youths to take up this dance. The Foundation educates both the aspiring young dancers and the general public, and is an amazingly beneficial non-profit organization. The Lightning Boy Foundation can be found at lightningboyfoundation.com and has videos, educational information, and even items that can be purchased through the Foundation. I particularly like the YouTube videos that they have on their website.

Every Thanksgiving weekend, the Lightning Boy Foundation has a major fund raiser event at the LaFonda Hotel in Santa Fe. Not only will you see some amazing hoop dancing performances, but you will also get the opportunity to directly support this worthwhile organization in fulfilling its mission. Look for us there.