POJOAQUE – Working with five hoops was the hardest. ShanDien LaRance modeled every move, flipping hoops forward until they were a flat, interwoven pattern in her hands before she pulled them into a ball representing the world.
An instructor with the Lightning Boy Foundation, a nonprofit that connects young Native people to their culture through hoop dancing, LaRance completed the dance with a flourish. But each move, each hoop, brought forth a sense of healing – and a circle of life that lasts, even through loss.
For her, the hoop dance carries the ability to bring community together and keep Native youngsters connected with their roots.
“We don’t have a lot of programs, fitness programs and sports programs, on the rez and [representation] in mainstream media, ”LaRance said. “We need to keep them rooted in their culture, so even when they leave, they always have something in their pocket.”
The foundation blossomed from the memory of Valentino Tzigiwhaeno Rivera, a student of Nakotah LaRance, the nine-time champion at the World Championship of Hoop Dance, who grew close to the young prodigy. Rivera died from brain and spinal injuries sustained in a car crash in 2015. Nakotah LaRance died at 30 two years ago after a climbing accident.
Though the loss of Rivera and Nakotah LaRance has been profound in the hoop dancing community, their lives and talent still resonate: Competitors from ages 3 to 24 are participating this weekend in the Lightning Boy Foundation’s annual competition at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe.
The event carries Nakotah LaRance’s name – and in many ways, his legacy.
Nakotah’s parents, Marian Denipah-LaRance and Steve LaRance, believe their son was called away to dance in the clouds to heal the world because of the turmoil and mass death in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, said ShanDien LaRance, Nakotah’s sister.
As the event approached, students practiced in the dance circle at the Lightning Boy headquarters overlooking Sierra Mosca on Thursday evening, leaving the imprints of the tips of their shoes in the sandy center. It was their last practice before competition weekend. ShanDien LaRance played slower songs for the children to dance to: a collection of powwow songs for kids by the Black Lodge Singers, a Blackfeet drum group, that combined traditional Native music with lines about cartoons like Mighty Mouse and The Flintstones.
Carla Jaramillo watched her 3-year-old grandson, Zayden Jaramillo, as he proudly raised his hoop and showed off his precise footwork, first demanding he be dressed in a hoop dancing outfit. Zayden, who is half Pojoaque Pueblo, picked up dancing at his grandmother’s house when he began watching Native dancing videos on YouTube.
After that, he always asked to see more videos when he visited his grandparents.
“Every, single night he’s watching YouTube for two hours, just watching and copying,” Carla Jaramillo said.
The hoops are new for Zayden, but they’re something he’s picked up on quickly. His grandparents’ cellphones are filled with photos and videos of him dancing in play costumes and headdresses, holding vibrant yellow rattles. Zayden chose his own costumes.
“We have Native American pictures in our home, and he would look at the pictures and say that’s how he wants his costume, and then I make it for him,” Jaramillo said. “So, he has a different costume for every dance.”
Both Zayden and Fia Jones McCoy, 11, competed for the first time at the Lightning Boy event. Fia, who is Muscogee Creek and Shoshone, was feeling mixed emotions at her last practice. She was nervous but excited it to her routine.
It’s not something she chose on her own at first. Her mother, Topaz Jones, who is Muscogee Creek and from a family of dancers, took Fia to her first hoop dancing classes. Not long after, the young girl found herself enjoying it.
“After the first week, we started doing tricks that were funner, like throwing hoops,” Fia said. “That’s when I had a lot of fun. They’re my favorite. “
She also is following her parents’ footsteps through drawing. Her father, Danny McCoy, is a painter while her mother paints, sculpts and basket weaves. Fia picked up drawing when she was “very, very, very young” – inspired by her parents to take up art.
Her daughter’s passion for dance and art fills Jones with pride. Observing Fia and her 8-year-old son, Levon Jones McCoy, get better with each practice is like “watching a magic trick,” she said. Not only is it an impressive physical skill, it’s something that helps keep the family connected with their relatives who live far away in Oklahoma and northern Nevada.
“We’re so far away from home, and it’s hard because we’re not there with [our families], “Jones said. “So, we hope they carry it through their whole lives. I tell them to keep dancing so you can teach your children. “
Jones was an active member of the powwow scene in her hometown in Oklahoma, where she and her peers reignited the event. She said it was a rebirth – a palpable shift from an era when many didn’t participate in such practices to a time when embracing tradition not only was accepted, but valued.
“When I’m practicing at home with [my kids], I’m always reminding them that this is something that was passed on by their ancestors from generation to generation, ”Jones said. “And there was a time when it was illegal and we couldn’t practice our dances and spirituality.”
Fia and Levon Jones McCoy will soon be integrated with their older peers in the coming months as they graduate into a more advanced class. It is a step that begins to foster community between the dancers because they begin teaching one another by challenging each other to try new moves.
It’s reminiscent of the way Nakotah LaRance used to teach his students, ShanDien LaRance said.
“My brother had Peter Pan syndrome,” she said. “He didn’t want to grow up. I’m more of an instructor, but when Nakotah used to teach, it was a madhouse. They were running around everywhere. But it was great for them because he was like a kid with them. “
ShanDien sees herself as a big sister to all her students. She said she takes a supportive role in their lives to keep them connected to their culture and the values hoop dancing teaches such as persistence and respect. When she sees a student veering off course, she reminds them to come back to hoop dancing and reconnect with themselves.
“The hoop represents the circle of life,” she said. “That teaches them how to respect animals, their elders and each other. When I see a kid who is going off course, I may not be in their family circle, but I can step up and say, ‘You’re on the wrong path. Come back to hoop dancing.’ “
Even spectators can feel the healing power of hoop dancing, ShanDien said. Sick and elderly people come up to her after shows and tell them how much better she made them feel, she said.
These days, her hoops are worn, and what was once a smooth covering over the hard plastic is patchy and frayed. It is a tangible symbol of her dedication to the dance. Her relationship with her hoops is personal. She talks to them when she is having difficulty doing a trick. She feels indistinguishable from them when she’s performing.
“When you’re dancing, you become a part of it,” LaRance said. “The rhythm, the drum, the earth and the hoops, it becomes one.”
LaRance spent many hours a day preparing for the competition, sewing regalia for the performers in the evenings while watching editing, videography and photography videos on YouTube as she prepares to launch her website and adult hoop dancing classes.
Her hope for each of her students is for them to reach the point where their personalities take center stage in their performances.
“Even though I’m teaching them all the same moves, it’s their personalities, their stories and their tribal affiliations that make it all different,” she said. “You can see who they are and their tribal affiliation just by the way they move. It becomes their own. “