Cherokee Traditional Dance

by Dina Gilio-Whitaker
The Fancy Shawl Dance is also known as the Cherokee Butterfly Dance.

The Fancy Shawl Dance is also known as the Cherokee Butterfly Dance.

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The Cherokee are one of the two largest Native American tribes in the United States today, and they are indigenous to the American south. They have many traditional dances, both ancient and modern, religious and social, and some are no longer performed. The religious dances are always performed in conjunction with sacred ceremonies, but some of them began as religious and later became social. Many of the dances are also common to other tribes of the region, such as the Creeks and Seminoles.

Stomp Dance

The Stomp Dance is the most important of all Cherokee dances. As a religious dance, it is performed as part of the Green Corn ceremony. It always takes place at the Stomp Dance grounds -- referred to as the "Square Grounds" -- and is performed according to strict protocols. The dance is performed around a large fire, symbolic of Cherokee creation stories. The dance begins after a large feast at the end of the day's preparations and lasts from sundown to sunup. The dance is iconic for the distinctive turtle-shell shakers worn by the women.

Masked Dances

Many Cherokee dances incorporate masks. The Bear Dance, Beaver Dance and Forest Buffalo Dances are masked dances that invoke the spirit of each animal the mask represented. The most important of the masked dances is the Booger Dance. Historically, masks were constructed to represent enemies of the Cherokee, and the dance was a ritualistic way to mock the enemy. In ancient times the masks resembled tribal enemies, such as the Chickasaw or the Seneca, but after European contact, the masks took on the characteristics of the white men with whom they struggled.

War Dance

Like many other American Indian tribes, the Cherokee had their own version of the War Dance. It was performed only by men; each man carried in his hands the weapons of war, such as a club or a knife, and danced to the beat of a single drum. The dancers' motions imitated the killing of an enemy, and the dance took place before battle. It is thought that the dance acted as a kind of dedication that encouraged the warrior to do his best in battle.

Butterfly Dance

The Cherokee Butterfly Dance is one of the modern dances that, according to legend, began as a "medicine" dance (a dance with religious significance). It is strictly a social dance that takes place primarily in powwows, which are inter-tribal gatherings for Indians of all tribes. Performed only by women, it is also known as the Fancy Shawl Dance and is said to imitate the flight of a butterfly because of its high energy and fancy footwork. The dance outfits are characterized by the shawls worn around the shoulders, decorated with bright colors and long fringe.

About the Author

Dina Gilio-Whitaker began writing professionally as a freelance journalist in 2001 when she focused on community activism. She has a bachelor's degree in Native American studies with a political science minor and is currently a graduate student in American studies at the University of New Mexico. Gilio-Whitaker has won numerous awards for her academic writing and is an accomplished Native American artist, crafter and dancer.

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