Haudenosaunee Smoke Dances

By Anna Hoefnagels

The Smoke Dance is a social dance of the Haudenosaunee. In the mid-to-late 1990s, the Smoke Dance began to appear on the powwow circuit in regions where Haudenosaunee reside. Subsequently, at some powwows, it is now a competition dance in which participants can win cash prizes. There are various explanations of the origins of the Smoke Dance, and in its current form it has been part of Haudenosaunee culture for thirty to forty years. While some people speculate that the dance originated as a means of clearing smoke out of the longhouse, others attribute its origins to non-Indigenous dances to which the Haudenosaunee were introduced. Another origin story states that the Smoke Dance developed from speeding up traditional War Dance songs to use for entertainment at exhibitions or “shows.” The newness of this dance to the Haudenosaunee is reflected in the fact that there is no word in the Iroquoian languages for this dance. Consequently, all Haudenosaunee refer to it as the Smoke Dance.

The goal of the Smoke Dancers is to show their flair for dance and to get attention from viewers. Two types of songs accompany the Smoke Dancers: slow and fast songs. The slow songs have roots in the traditional War Dances of the Haudenosaunee, and therefore are only performed by men. It is speculated that some of these dances evolved out of other dances as well as the War Dance, including the Rabbit Dance, Skin Dance or Shake the Bush Dance. The fast songs may be accompanied by a Moccasin Dance Song or Stick Dance Song, requiring much quicker steps from the male and female dancers. Although some songs that are used for the Smoke Dance have alternate uses, there are about eighteen songs associated with this dance, and people continue to compose and perform new Smoke Dance songs. A single male singer playing a traditional Iroquoian water drum sings  the song for a Smoke Dance in a comfortable vocal range.

The dancers usually wear traditional Haudenosaunee outfits that are distinctive while always retaining an air of gracefulness. Men’s outfits include leather moccasins, a coloured cotton shirt decorated with ribbons, and coordinated black velvet or leather leggings with matching armbands, front and rear apron with belt and collar. On their heads they often wear a leather headdress, and they may carry a large feather fan in one hand. The women wear moccasins, black velvet or leather leggings, a matching skirt over which they wear cotton dresses of a floral pattern with ribbons, and usually a crown or tiara-like headdress.

Since most of these songs are fast-paced, the dancers will not be asked to perform more than four songs in a row, allowing them to catch their breath between dances. In competitions at powwows, the male dancers often perform one slow song and one fast song, and if the judges, dancers or audience members request it, they may perform an additional fast song. All dancers dance individually, moving their feet and bodies to the quick beat of the drum, “skipping” when there is a “hiccup” in the music. Dancers may choose to dance on the spot or move around the entire dance area as a means of drawing attention to themselves.

The Haudenosaunee Smoke Dance is a very good example of a newly celebrated dance with roots from within the culture that has taken on a life of its own. These dances have become very popular competition categories at powwows that are held in close proximity to Haudenosaunee communities, showing not only the adaptability of the Haudenosaunee, but that of the larger Indigenous population as well, as they welcome new and innovative dance and music forms into their cultural events.

Read an interview with the Smoke Dancer Jija Jacobs here.

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Indigenous Dance