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Haudenosaunee Social Dancing: Traditional Dances

by George Beaver

As soon as the speaker finished the opening address, he named the dance that would begin the social. As has always been the custom, it was the ancient Standing Quiver Dance, or in the Cayuga language, the Gada: trot.

Standing Quiver Dance

Each of the six nations has its own language, so every one says the name of this dance differently. For example, the Onondagas say Gehdatshe:de, while the Mohawks call it Keteht:shroht.

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The quiver was the arrow case that a hunter carried over his shoulder. When a village organized a hunting party, the Chief would announce that those who wished to go should stand their quivers in the middle of a large open place in the woods. Later, the Chief would count the quivers to see how many hunters were available. When the hunters were ready, the villagers performed a farewell dance to wish them good luck.

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The hunters would return a few days or weeks later and stand their quivers in the same clearing in the woods. Again, the people of the village would do the Standing Quiver Dance. This time it was a welcome and a thanksgiving for the hunters’ success.

Social dances throughout the Haudenosaunee's long history have connected the dancers to their ancestors. The Standing Quiver Dance is very simple, so even toddlers and the very old can do it. That is why we use it today as the first dance at a social. This shuffle is good for limbering up stiff knees and muscles and for preparing for the faster, more strenuous dances to follow.

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Standing Quiver Dance Video 3 megs +

As soon as the speaker that night named the Standing Quiver Dance, the lead singer and his assistant appeared on the dance floor. They began to dance to the familiar strains of Gada:trot. A moment later, a line of male dancers formed behind them. As is the custom, the best dancers took the lead, followed by a jostling group of boys. As the men responded to the head singer’s song, their feet stamping in unison gave an interesting percussive effect.

Soon women and girls joined the line, each taking a place between two men. One tall young woman danced confidently in her high heels; another carried her baby in her arms.

At intervals, some men moved slightly out of line to do some fancy stepping, all the while keeping time to the beat. According to custom, the line moved counter-clockwise. After five or ten minutes the song and dance ended and the dancers walked off the floor to chat with friends who were sitting in chairs and at tables along the perimeter.

The Moccasin Dance

In a few minutes the speaker, still speaking only in Cayuga, announced that the next dance would be the Moccasin Dance. This dance too is ancient, with its own suite of songs. To the uninitiated, it seemed to be the same song with many more verses. Unlike the Standing Quiver Dance, however, the Moccasin Dance began with the lead singer and his assistant taking their places facing each other at one end of a row of chairs in the middle of the dance floor. About ten other male singers, men and boys both, quickly joined them.

The lead singer kept time with a water drum, and the rest used cow horn rattles. The two men chosen to lead began to dance counter-clockwise, using a very fast toe-heel step with a lot of body movement. After they had danced for one song single file around the two rows of singers, many more pairs of male dancers joined them. That song ended and another began, as pairs of women came out, each stepping between a pair of men. The pairs of male and female dancers alternated in a huge circle around the singers.

Halfway through each song, a brief change in the beat signaled the dancers to change positions with their partner. This meant that for the second half of that song and the first half of the next, the head dancer’s female partner was “the leader.” Among good dancers this often led to comical improvisations that all enjoyed.

The songs that have always accompanied the Moccasin Dance have a different tune and vocals than the Standing Quiver Dance. These two dances are probably the oldest Social Dances of the modern Longhouse People, but another 20 or so are common. Little danger exists that people will run out of dances, even at the longest social.

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Moccasion Dance Video
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Haudenosaunee babies begin to learn the dances when their mothers bounce them on her knee in time to the music or carried them around the floor. The babies can dance alone as soon as they begin to walk, but before they learn to step in time the people affectionately call them “the loud shoes.”

The Cayuga name for the Moccasin Dance is Gayo:wah, which in the olden days referred to the dance moccasins children had to earn. Each spring a dance tested the adolescents strictly. Those who passed won their dance moccasins. Judges noted the start, how well the youths followed the drum, the change and the end. Those youths who did not win moccasins danced another year with the “loud shoes” at the end of the line.

Names of Social/Earth Songs in Cayuga, Mohawk and English

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We call the Social Songs Earth Songs to show the difference between them and the sacred ceremonial songs used only in a longhouse. Audio samples and descriptions of each dance are available on the internet at the Ohwejagehka website. This information includes the three basic dance steps: fish, stomp, and side step shuffle.

The following provides a compact list of 20 Ohwejagehka Gae:nasho:oh or Earth Songs. The Mohawk terminology is what people use at Akwesasne, a community on both sides of the Ontario – New York border.

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1. Gada:trot – Watahtshero:ton - Standing Quiver or Stomp Dance
2. Gayo:wah – Moccasin Dance
3. Gayowaga:yoh – Ahtahkwaka:ion - Old Moccasin Dance
4. Jihsgugugeha – Tsiskoko’neha - Robin Dance  Robin Dance Ron 25
5. Twetwetgeha: - Sorahne:ha - Duck Dance
6. Dega nodotgeha: - Tekanionton’neha -  Alligator Dance Ron 23, Ron 31
7. Tsahgowa geha: - Orite’neha -  Pigeon Dance
8. Sanogeha: - Atironhneha - Raccoon Dance
9. Dakshae dohsgeha: - Kitineha’ -  Chicken Dance

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10. Wa enoti:yo  – Ahonte’nio’thi:iate -  Sharpened Stick Dance
11. Odadehnyoha: - Iontahrio:tha -  Ferrying (Fishing or Canoe) Dance
12. Da nuhsdageha: or Gahsgohao:dado: - Ononsta’keha - Naked Dance or Shake the Bush Dance
13. Otsinhaho – Atshihna’neha -  Gartered Dance
14. Ehsga: nye:gae:nase: - Tsionahthonwisenhneha - New Women’s Shuffle Dance Ron 162
15. Otowegeha: -  Othore’keha’  - Northern Dance
16. Oyadageha: - Cherokee Stomp Dance

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17. Gwa yogeha: - Tehahonhtanekenhneha’ -  Rabbit Dance
18. Ganehwae: - Delaware Skin Dance
19. Otwadase ta – Tsiohthwatase:tha - Round Dance
20. Deyodatnoho-nyo tahkwa –  Atero’serahneha’ - Friendship Dance

A quick glance at the names of these social dances shows a pattern. The Cherokee Stomp Dance and Delaware Skin Dance show at once that these dances came from nations other than the Haudenosaunee. Since the dances are not sacred to the Haudenosaunee, our people can enjoy them at their socials whenever they wish. Of course, we have had to adapt these songs to the Haudenosaunee model.

The Round Dance

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We introduce new songs now and then, but the old favourites remain popular. In order that you can understand better what the Haudenosaunee consider “old songs,” I will tell you about some of the new songs and dances.  For example, the Twada sat a, or the Round Dance, came from the Seneca-Cayuga Longhouse in Oklahoma, about 2,400 kilometres (1,500 miles) southwest of our homeland.

That Longhouse was there because around 1830

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President Andrew Jackson enforced the Indian Removal Act. Jackson had defied a U.S. Supreme Court order that declared the act unconstitutional. He ordered the army to round up aboriginal people from all over the United States and exiled them to the southern “Indian Territory.” Thousands of people died along that Trail of Tears.

About 50 years ago, the Allegheny Seneca, south of Buffalo, N.Y., one of seven reservations still in New York, brought the Round Dance here after a visit to their southern relatives’ Longhouse.
The Round Dance has a backing-up step that fits the Haudenosaunee patterns. It also has something new: dancers form circles that move in opposite directions.

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The lead drummer and his assistants, holding rattles, sit in the centre of the dance floor as they do for Gayo wa. They prepare to sing each song twice. As the first songs begin, a circle forms around the singers. The dancers face inward and dance in one direction until a change in the song signals them to reverse direction.

When the first circle fills up, the dancers form a new one on the outside that moves the other way.  Children often form their own circle, but an inner one closest to the singers in the centre. They move opposite the circle just behind them, which is the same direction as the outer circle. All these circles moving in opposite directions can make the onlookers dizzy.

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The Round Dance is a four-step dance with the accent on the first step. When a circle moves clockwise, the step is right-feet forward about 12 inches, then off to the right the same distance.  The dancers move their left foot to the right and bring the right back in line with the left and off to the right. Next, they put their left foot next to the right foot and then repeat the movements.

Even the dancers’ minor mistakes may have a happy result. Young male dancers often over-reach the first forward step and then slam their feet hard on the floor as their bodies dip forward. This produces a pleasant accent to the beat of the drum.

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Round Dance Video
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The Cold Dance

The Cold Dance (Oto wa gaha), also known as the Dance of the North or the Eskimo Dance, came from the Quebec Mohawks, who live northeast of the Six Nations. This dance, too, arrived slightly less than 50 years ago, when a Mohawk chief, Joe Logan Jr., brought it back after a visit to Quebec. Its songs are unusually long and their musical form makes them difficult for novice singers to learn. The name Cold Dance may be an example of the tongue-in-cheek humour that the Mohawks and other First Peoples favour.

The Naked Dance

Another Social Dance with a rather amusing name is the Naked Dance. It came to the Longhouse People from the Sioux people out west. Today the Sioux prefer their own name, the Lakota, Nakota, Nakoda, or Dakota. A main difference is that the L speakers use no Ns or Ds, the N speakers use no Ds or Ls, and so forth. In the old times, especially in summer, the men often shed their outer clothing when doing strenuous activity. The Haudenosaunee have referred to them as the Odani sta hono (Naked People), from which they derived the name of their dance. The New York Seneca, in contrast, call this same dance the Shake the Bush Dance - though perhaps this is another instance of Native humour in action.

The Naked Dance starts with an “orchestra” of male singers who use a number of cow horn rattles and a water drum in the centre of the dance area. The women dancers form two lines, stand in place and sing with the “orchestra” during the slow introductory songs. Then the tempo changes and the dance speeds up. The first two women face backwards to the pair behind. All the other pairs of women in the column do the same. Halfway through each song they exchange places, as in Gayo:wa. Things get even more interesting when pairs of men set themselves between these pairs of women and dance as partners. Its steps are a hop, brush and forward kick of the foot. Because of this, some people call it the Kick Dance.

Delaware Skin Dance

Another Social Dance with a suggestive name is the Delaware Skin Dance (Gana whi), though once again, the dancers do not need to show any skin. Instead, the skin might refer to the traditional Delaware drum of folded deerskin, although musicians no longer use this drum in this dance. Over the years, people have replaced it with any thing that produces a sharp loud sound.

This dance came to the Haudenosaunee from the Delaware people who joined Joseph Brant’s warriors during the American Revolution. The Delawares are Algonkian speaking people who we would now call Anishnabek. In the 1500s, the Haudenosaunee called them Adirondacks, the same name as the mountain range in the United States. They called themselves Lenni Lenape and other Algonkian speakers called them “the Grandfathers.” These warriors brought their families to the safety of the Grand River when the Six Nations came here to live in 1784 after the war.

In the 1800s, the Delawares lived on the east end of Third Line. This road came to be called Delaware Line. Their gathering place, which they called “the Big House,” was east of the corner people now call Smoothtown. The Big House was where the Delawares held their traditional dances until about 50 years ago.

This building has now fallen down, but the Delaware Skin Dance is still popular among the Longhouse dancers. The Six Nations Delawares no longer carry on any of their traditions. The Skin Dance is the Six Nations’ only Delaware dance.

To perform it, usually, the lead singer and his assistant sit on a bench and beat time with the wooden end of a cow horn rattle against the belly of a turtle rattle. Turtle rattles are much larger and heavier than cow horn rattles, so there might not be any turtle rattles at a social. In such a case, the musicians might strike the bench itself. Old timers can remember drummers using a sheet of elm bark or even a cardboard corn flakes box.

I saw this dance performed at the Six Nations Community Hall in the village of Ohsweken. Two men sat facing each other in the middle of the dance area, using an unseen object as a sounding board. Two men led the dancers who stood ready. The lead dancer signaled with a yell that he was ready. The sitting men answered and afterwards the men dancers did the same. After two or three songs the women dancers appeared and took their places between the men. They did not yell, however, as this would be immodest. At first, the dance began with a slow, simple, flat-footed shuffle of two beats per foot, called the pat step. After four to six slow songs the singers increased the tempo. The step was the same but much faster. After about three more songs, the singers returned to the slower beat, much to the relief of the dancers.

The singers then chose at their whim a slow song or a fast one. Toward the end of the Delaware Skin Dance, they kept singing fast songs in an attempt to exhaust the dancers. Soon only the fit were able to go on. This is quite likely the most strenuous of all the Haudenosaunee social dances.

The Pigeon Dance

Another dance that likely came to the Haudenosaunee around the same time as the Delaware Skin Dance is the Pigeon Dance (Tshawowakeha). The Tutelo people brought the dance when the Cayuga Nation adopted them. The Tutelos had come to “take shelter under the Great Tree of Peace.” This ceremonial term meant they wished to join the Haudenosaunee.

Some Cayugas and Onondagas have traced their lineage back to the Tutelos. Bob Jamieson, a former interpreter for the Six Nations Confederacy, told me about 15 years ago that he could still say one Tutelo word. When he died a few years later, the last Tutelo word at Six Nations was gone forever. The Tutelos spoke a Siouan language.

After the Six Nations came to the Grand River in 1784, the Tutelos came with them and settled at Tutelo Heights near the Mohawk Village and Brant’s Ford. The Tutelos brought their traditional dances, including the Pigeon Dance. The bird in this dance was the now extinct passenger pigeon, which used to be so numerous in North America that clouds of them used to blot out the sun when they flew up all at once.

The Pigeon Dance has commonly ended an evening of Haudenosaunee social dancing. To begin this dance, two columns of men line up, one column behind the lead singer and one behind his assistant. Both men carry a horn rattle. They begin the dance with a Gada trot step. The Pigeon Dance is different than most other Haudenosaunee social dances in which the men do all the singing. In this case, the women step between the men to dance and can sing, too, if they know the song.

The Rabbit Dance

The Rabbit Dance (Gwa yo geha) also allows women singers. Like the Round Dance, the Allegheny Seneca first brought this from Oklahoma. It is also a “new dance” to the Haudenosaunee, because its songs are only about 50 years old.

The Haudenosaunee did not accept the Rabbit Dance right away. In fact, three groups introduced the dance before the Longhouse People would adopt it.

Some years ago, Chauncey Isaacs, a notable traveler, introduced the Rabbit Dance with Oklahoma songs at Ohsweken. Then Percy Smoke and other members of Fred Williams’ Red Cloud Dance Troupe brought back songs. This troupe was in show business, travelling as entertainers in the United States and Canada. The troupe had learned a variation of this dance from one of its members, Big Blow Snake of the Winnebago nation. His version had a high forward step and no backward step.

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Then Herb Dowdy of the Alleghany Seneca saw the Rabbit Dance while on a visit to Oklahoma. He believed he could make his own set of songs. Dowdy and a friend, Avery Jimerson, composed new Rabbit Dance songs that have become very popular.

When the women dancers join the men singers, their higher pitched voices give a beautiful quality to these songs. The Rabbit Dance and the Fishing Dance are the only dances where a man can choose a female partner. This usually causes giggling among the girls and broad smiles from everyone else.

The lead singer with a water drum and his helpers with cow horn rattles sit in the centre of the dance floor on two benches or two rows of chairs, facing each other. The dancers begin with the man on the woman’s left. He holds her hands in a cross-over pattern. His left hand holds her left hand and his right hand holds her right hand. They face forward and dance two steps forward and one step back. Over the years, the men and women have learned to add a rocking swing to their gripped hands and a slight dip to the body.

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Rabbit Dance Video
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Halfway through each song the tempo changes. This is the signal for the dancers to do a circling motion. Two variations exist. At Six Nations the men and women usually keep holding hands. While still dancing forward, they also turn one revolution to the left. They use their clasped hands as the axis of their turn. In New York State, however, the dancers release their hands and turn in opposite directions. On completing the turn they rejoin hands and continue going forward. Like some other social dances, the Rabbit Dance occurs twice during a social.

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