Used in traditional healing ceremonies in several Native American cultures, a hoop – which has no distinct beginning or end – symbolizes the circle of life. According to the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, modern hoop dancing was “developed and perfected by Tony Whitecloud, who created a performance program for the tourist industry using willow hoops to form shapes and drawings while dancing to intertribal music”.
Today, dancers compete annually in the museum’s World Hoop Dance Competition using between four and 50 hoops. They are judged on five elements: precision, timing and rhythm, showmanship, originality and speed. Competing by age group, but not by gender identity, dancers from diverse Indigenous communities combine athleticism and artistry, creating creative routines that are as unique as the cultures they represent.
In 2022, Shadé Phea Young (Navajo/Hopi/Tewa) was named Teen Champion of the Heard Hoop Dance Contest. Young grew up in a family of hoop dancers and also plays volleyball, basketball and softball. She says she’s not a competitive person, but she likes a challenge. the hoop dance also offers him the opportunity to reconnect with the traditions of his ancestors. “The hoop dance was originally a healing ceremony, so when we dance, we not only bring strength to ourselves, but also to others,” Young says.
In 1997, Ginger Sykes Torres was just 15 when she became the first woman to win a league title. she says she would have liked to continue dancing, but quit competing after the physical challenges of becoming a mother. Although she hung up her hoops, two of her three young children competed this year – and Sykes Torres never stopped trying to break down barriers. She is currently a candidate to represent Arizona’s 1st congressional district; if she wins, she would be the first Native American to represent the state at the federal level. “Setting myself up in an awkward position to be a leader back then was definitely an experience that helped me in what I do now,” she says.
Although its roots go back much further, the first world championship hoop dance competition was held in 1991 at the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque. A year later, the event moved to the Heard Museum, whose mission is “Advancing Native American Art”. After going virtual in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the competition returned for a 32nd year to the museum’s Libby Amphitheater on a sunny, warm day in late March this year.
Tony Duncan (San Carlos Apache/MHA Nations), is the 2011 and 2021 (virtual) Heard Hoop Dance Contest Adult World Champion. This year, Duncan, a resident of Mesa, Arizona, was the third runner-up in the adult division.
Young is the 2022 Heard Hoop Dance Contest World Teenage Champion. The 17-year-old athlete is a high school student in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Each dancer creates unique designs and tries to tell a story with their hoops. “The hoop dance is very beautiful,” she says.
The World Championship Hoop Dance Competition begins with the Grand Entrance: Competitors dressed in beautiful regalia enter the amphitheater to the rhythmic sound of the Thunder Boy Singers and Cozad Singers, who provide live music for the dancers.
Hoop dancers of all ages come from the United States and Canada to compete each year at the Heard Museum. They are judged according to criteria developed by Ralph Zotigh; the 2022 judging panel included Charlene Bomberry, a women’s traditional powwow dance champion, and Eddie Swimmer, the first official world hoop dance champion.
Hoop dancers must cross each hoop, move with the beat of the drum, and finish in time with the music. They accumulate points according to the number and originality of the drawings, as well as the degree of difficulty and coordination required.
The competition extends over 2 days, with four different categories: youth (6 to 12 years old), teenagers (13 to 17 years old), adults (18 to 39 years old) and seniors (40 years old and over). Women and men compete side by side in each age category.
The competition starts with the “toddlers”, which includes children from 0 to 5 years old. Unlike older divisions, all eligible contestants dance simultaneously, with awards given at the end of the round.
The Lightning Boy Foundation is a northern New Mexico nonprofit organization that offers traditional hoop dancing lessons and other programs for Native youth ages 2 and up. “Dedicated to nurturing and building trust and integrity through culture and artistic expression”, the foundation was created in memory of Valentino Tzigiwhaeno Rivera, by his family in collaboration with the actor, performer and famous dancer of hoop Nakotah LaRance and her father, Steve.
“The Lightning Boy Foundation inspires [Native youth] to gain confidence and to learn and engage with their culture,” says Young. “It teaches them that they can inspire others by sharing their dance.” In 2022, four of the 13 Lightning Boy hoop dancers placed in the World Championship Hoop Dance competition.
Although she didn’t intend to at the time, Sykes Torres paved the way for other competitors, including her own daughter, Shikeyah (Navajo/Mexican), who danced in the youth division in 2022. Although dancing and politics have their obvious differences, Sykes Torres says both of these activities have helped her feel more connected to her culture. “I did it [hoop dancing] because I was interested,” she says. “But now that I have a daughter, I see how important it is for her to see other hoop dancers doing it.”
Thunder Boy Singers provides some of the amazing music that dancers use to keep their beat. Dancers are judged in part by how well they can keep up and coordinate with the fast beat of the drum. Lead singer Ryon Polequaptewa (Hopi) says, “With the songs that are created [for the competition] we hope to bring positive energy, prayer and balance to the universe.