Dancing from the Heart: A Rehearsal at Zuni Pueblo

This article was published in Indian Country Today in January 2013. For more on topics like this, please see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle for Self-Determination and Inclusion

The late afternoon sun slanted through puffy clouds and played over the surface of Zuni Pueblo’s sacred Corn Mountain. Small golden heads of wild sunflowers dappled the field at the base of the mesa, which rises 1,000 feet over the pueblo’s western New Mexico village. Against this imposing high-desert backdrop, a dance rehearsal got underway.

Seven-member Soaring Eagle, the first of two groups to run through their paces that day, adjusted their headdresses and other regalia. Meanwhile, Tammy Weebothee, a dancer and organizer of the rehearsal, pointed out a tall spire, nearly the height of the mesa and just south of it (to its right in the photographs here). It appeared to represent two figures, one taller than the other, wrapped in a blanket. “They’re a brother and sister who died to save the community when flood waters rose.” She noted pale striations across the russet face of Corn Mountain—traces left behind by the foaming waters, she said.

Soaring Eagle lived up to its name. As the dancers moved through long chains of intricate unison footwork, they seemed to spend more time in the air than on the ground. Meanwhile, their elegant hand gestures floated above the footwork. Such light-footed elegance may look delicate, but requires strength and timing—skills that have earned them Zuni Fair dance championships and appearances throughout the Southwest.

The music supports the dance and makes this possible, said Weebothee. “The drumbeat is the heartbeat of Mother Nature. When you dance, it carries you, and you become one with the earth.”

Soaring Eagle performs social dances, as opposed to religious ones, said group leader and musician Arlen Quetawki, Jr. They’re traditional pieces, but they’re also creative, he said. “Working within the Zuni tradition, we compose our own steps, hand gestures and songs. The lyrics have to do with rain, plentiful crops, good health and longevity. We don’t perform for ourselves but to bring the audience good feelings. If anyone is ill or down on their luck, we want to give them a bit of enjoyment.”

In addition to appearing at cultural centers and festivals, the group has performed in the Zuni public schools. The younger members of the troupe love traveling, Quetawki said—and they have lots of energy. After performing at a Grand Canyon venue, they hiked 3½ miles to the canyon floor. “Our dream is to be in the Macy’s parade,” he added. “It would put the spotlight on Pueblo people.” Whether the setting is obviously educational or not, the group seeks to teach while dancing, he said.

Soaring Eagle is one of dozens of dance troupes in the pueblo, with as many as 40 participating in the annual Zuni Fair, according to Soaring Eagle musician Howard Lesarlley. For most performers, dancing professionally provides a small second income, though a few groups have dancers under contract, and they can make a living at their art, said Weebothee.

As Soaring Eagle’s rehearsal came to a close, pick-up trucks pulled up bearing 14 members of Anshe:kwe, shown here, which has performed coast to coast and has also won Zuni Fair championships. The dancers leapt out of the trucks to don brilliantly colored macaw- and pheasant-trimmed headdresses and other regalia, line up and begin their most popular work, the Shield Dance.

Whereas Soaring Eagle’s style was lyrical, that of Anshe:kwe, led by musician Serfino Cachini, was dramatic. The corps of female dancers displayed unison footwork in subtle, shifting rhythms—linking high-energy runs, stamps, step-hops and toe touches with precision and panache. Their performance was a definition in dance form of cohesion and cooperation.

Meanwhile, three male dancers wove in and out of the line of women—pacing, jumping and punctuating their steps with occasional high-pitched cries. Their movements were grounded and sinuous and included improvisation. “We’re portraying warriors in this dance,” explained the eldest male dancer, McKeffe Chapella, left. “And when warriors go into battle, they have to improvise.”

Choreography is a collective effort for Anshe:kwe, said Cachini. “We sit down and brainstorm. One of the group members or I will show a movement; we’ll all try it out, work with it, then decide together if it looks good or not. We discuss everything—the words of the songs, the hand gestures and every detail of the regalia.”

How often do they rehearse? Peals of laughter from the dancers greeted Cachini’s response: “Every day! We spend too much time together! We’re like a family, and in fact we’re all relatives. Dancing is our world. What we do comes from the heart.”

Anshe:kwe’s women were wearing dance dresses they’d finished the night before (“hot off the sewing machines,” said Weebothee) in preparation for their next appearance, in Hopi, Arizona. The troupe performs almost every week, for private events like wedding receptions and graduation parties, as well as for public ones. Anshe:kwe is 27-strong at its largest, and when it travels, accompanying family members swell the size of the entourage to several times that number. The group recently appeared at the Grand Canyon, and younger troupe members joked about jumping on the glass-bottomed Skywalk (“You could feel it shake!”).

Most of the dancers have practiced their art since they were able to walk, said Weebothee. In the rehearsal at Corn Mountain, the tiniest member of Anshe:kwe, three-year-old Vanessa Kallestewa, shown below, followed the older girls, clutching feathers in her little fists as she tried out the steps. “That’s how it is,” said Cachini. “The little ones learn by watching the older dancers. We also coach each other.”

Zuni dance is about more than steps, according to Weebothee. “For us, it’s an heirloom, and we dance to maintain our traditions. Through it, dancers learn respect, responsibility and cultural awareness. They develop proficiency at positive social interaction. And they learn to dress themselves in traditional attire.”

Weebothee and her uncle and brother have taught dance in the pueblo’s public schools. “If our dance students had disciplinary issues, we did not penalize them. Instead, we talked to the whole group about the issue, as though it was a family. As a result, the students grew.” The Zuni public-school dance group also inspired others. When they performed in a California city, Weebothee recalled, audience members decided to use their own heritage dance to attract youth to something meaningful and positive.

The rehearsal broke up, and the dancers headed back to the village. The sun sank through the brilliant blue sky, picking out yellow wildflowers, green junipers, swaths of pink desert sand and the russet of Corn Mountain—costuming the ancient Zuni landscape in colors as vivid as the dance.

Seeing Zuni Dance
To learn when and where Zuni dance troupes are appearing, at the pueblo or outside it, contact Zuni Visitor Center (505-782-7238; www.zunitourism.com). If you’re going to the pueblo, make the visitor center your first stop. It’s a low adobe building on the north side of Route 53, east of the village. You can purchase a photo permit—required if you plan to take any photographs at all—and find out about places to eat and stay, walking tours, the community’s Ashiwi Awan Museum and several trading posts right in town offering authentic Zuni jewelry, stone carving, pottery and other crafts.

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs c. Joseph Zummo.

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