Everything Yazzie does, every graceful movement of his feet and body, expresses a cyclical movement. He invited the audience to participate in the dance, leading them in a series of circles and then bringing them back to the center of the room as one. There was something more to this dancing than just an eye-catching costume and the beauty of a body moving to music that spoke with natures voice and the sweet sounds of Native American instruments.
When Yazzie was done and I got a chance to interview him, not only his warmth surprised me but the openness and honesty in every word he spoke. Yazzie is part of the Meskwaki Nation in Tama, Iowa. He was seven when he first started dancing and has been dancing for 32 years. I opened the interview by asking him about the cyclical motion in his dancing, and he responded by asking me what I felt when I saw him dance. I said that it seemed to be a representation of unity and a sense of everything being connected in a circle, and he smiled and told me that I was right. "Fancy dancing is a representation of life, a form of celebrating life," he said.
As we spoke, Yazzie packed up his beautiful costume, which in total weighs 10 pounds and is made of dyed rooster and turkey feathers, porcupine spines, deer tails and two eagle feathers from a golden eagle. These two feathers, believed to be powerful, are worn on top of the head to show respect to the eagle, which is sacred to Native Americans. The feathers are the last touch to adorn the regalia of the fancy dance costume.
When Yazzie dances, he listens to the sound of the music and lets his body follow the fluidity of the instruments and the animal sounds that blend together. Every time he dances it is different, since it is not choreographed. He simply moves according to what the music makes him feel. "Although fancy dancing is a contemporary, flamboyant form of dancing," Yazzie said, "it still expresses the ideals and beliefs of Native Americans, who are very spiritual, giving, helping out the people of Native American towns, sharing food and living off the land." Fancy dancing is a new dance, but Native Americans still practice their ancient ceremony dances, which they were once forbidden to do. "[We] don't forget where we come from, but we still incorporate the new with the old together," Yazzie said.
I asked Yazzie if he has ever experienced racism in parts of the country in which he has danced, and if so, why he continues dancing. He said that not only does he dance to educate people, but he also dances to contribute to his tribe and all Native American people. Yazzie said that "dance is my platform to express my political message and my beliefs" and that he feels strongly disrespected by the names of certain sports teams, such as the Red Skins and the Atlanta Braves. He deals with this affront not by responding negatively but by using humor their name is why the Atlanta Braves have not won a single game, he joked.
Native American parents educate their children in their culture by teaching them their native language and customs before they go to public school, Yazzie said. The parents believe that if they do not educate their children and teach them their dances, songs and rituals, then the Creator will take away all that he has given to them. Yazzie makes a point to not only educate his fellow Americans but to visit other countries that have a Hollywood view of Native Americans and educate them through his dancing.