Dancing with hoops to be teen world champion at 17

by @Jung_Carrie February 21, 2016 5:00AM ET

At annual Native American performance competition, it’s not just the prizes; it’s a way of life

Indian Country
Talon Duncan practices before performing at the 26th annual Heard Museum World Championship Hoop Dance Contest in Phoenix, Feb. 14, 2016.
Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America
Duncan gets dressed before the final.
Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America

PHOENIX — Talon Ree Duncan had a good semifinals and leads the teen division by 5 points, but there’s still one more round before he can call himself the 2016 world champion hoop dancer.

Duncan, 17, is calm and collected as the finals get underway. The division is tough: Only three dancers made it to this round.

His brother paints a thick red line across Duncan’s cheekbones and over his nose. The look, inspired by his San Carlos Apache and Hidatsa heritage, is meant to recall war paint.

“And I save it for my final round because that’s the round I want to feel like a warrior,” he says.

As the announcer calls his name over the loudspeaker, Duncan walks to the sandy center of a grassy amphitheater. He arranges 10 hoops in a circular pattern on the ground and nods when he’s ready to begin.

Duncan is thin for his 6 foot 2 frame. Despite his lankiness, when the drumbeat starts, his body moves gracefully to the rhythm. One by one, he kicks up the hoops with his feet, jumping through them and spinning them on his arms. As the song continues, the moves get more complicated. He forms shapes like a butterfly by stringing all 10 hoops on his body. Then without missing a beat, he moves them all up his torso and into his hands to form a sphere.

His parents watching anxiously in the audience. “It is so exciting to see your children excel at something that they enjoy so much,” says his mother, Doreen Duncan.

Still, watching the competition is hard. “I get crazy nervous,” she says.

The performance ring at the Heard Museum, Feb. 14, 2016.
Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America
Moontee Sinquah, a Hopi/Tewa/Choctaw from Second Mesa in Arizona, dancing in the second round of the senior competition.
Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America

It’s a feeling shared by others at the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest, held over Valentine’s Day weekend this year, with over 80 women, men and children competing — more than ever before. After launching in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1990, the event has been held at the Heard Museum, a Native American art and history museum in midtown Phoenix for the past 25 years. And every February it attracts several thousand spectators and Native American dancers from all over North America.

At stake is a cash prize, but not everyone is there with the money in mind. Hoop dancing is a way of life for many of the competitors as well as a source of personal and tribal pride. Also, this competition can lead to being discovered by promoters and event coordinators. For some of the dancers, winning big is their ticket to see the world.

This is Talon Duncan’s last year in the teen division of the contest. Two of his older brothers boast multiple world champion titles, and he’d like to follow the family tradition.

His dance lasts just over five minutes. After gathering his hoops, he leaves the dance floor just as confidently as he walked in. He feels good. “I don’t think I messed up,” he says.

Modern hoop dancing is a relatively new art form among Native American tribes, rising in popularity in the 1930s. Many credit Tony White Cloud of the Jemez Pueblo and his performances in places like the Chicago Railroad Fair for the spread of hoop dancing’s appeal. But the exact origins of this stylized dance aren’t fully known, as many tribes, like the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona and the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, have long-standing ceremonial hoop traditions.

“There is a lot of symbolism within indigenous communities with the idea of a hoop or a circle,” says Jaclyn Roessel, a member of the Navajo Nation and the Heard Museum’s education director. She says her culture and many other Native American communities share the belief that life is continuous and that things return to each other.

Duncan practices before the competition, in Mesa, Arizona, Feb. 8, 2016, while his father provides a drumbeat.
Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America
Duncan takes a break before the final round.
Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America

Modern hoop dancing is more performance than ceremony, she says, so dancers today are open to incorporating modern influences into their routines.

“There are a lot of references to the living world around the dancers themselves or things that are included in their lifestyle as modern people,” she says. So in addition to forming animals like eagles and horses out of their hoops, dancers have been known to use moves like the Harlem shake and even the moonwalk.

Creativity is a big point getter, according to David Lee, one of the contest’s five judges. “Some of them have similar routines, but when they switch it up, that’s what I like,” he says. “Something different.” Dancers can use as many hoops as they want, but he says more doesn’t necessarily mean better. In the end, dancers are judged on five main factors: speed, creativity, precision, timing and showmanship.

For good dancers, scoring well can mean more than just a title. Regardless of how they place, dancing at the world championships offers them exposure. Cirque du Soleil has recruited several dancers from the contest to join its traveling shows. And many families at the contest are regularly asked to perform at corporate and educational events all over the world. The Duncans, for example, have traveled to more than 30 countries since they began performing together.

“This is our way of life,” says Alex Wells, a member of the Lil’wat First Nation in British Columbia. He has been hoop dancing for 26 years, and with three world champion titles under his belt, he makes his living performing. “It’s given me a good life,” he says.

It has also provided him with an extended family of sorts. The world championship, for example, tends to bring many of the same families together each year. “There are a lot of us families here that are bonded by this contest itself,” he says. “We kind of adopt each other.”

Duncan performing in the final round
Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America

While the contest is fiercely competitive, family, in all of its forms, is at the center of much of the activity here. For Duncan, the same rings true. The youngest of eight children, he credits his brothers and father for teaching him the form. In addition to coaching his family, his father stays very busy making hoops for all his kids.

While traditionally the hoops are made of willow or other woods, the senior Duncan uses plastic tubing. “They found out that the hoops that they made fell apart,” he says. “So it feels good to hear them call me master hoop maker.”

After two days full of dancing, the contest finally draws to a close just as dusk rolls into the amphitheater. Museum officials work briskly to tabulate the final scores and declare the winners.

Talon Duncan waits next to friends and family as the master of ceremonies announces the third place finisher, Josiah Enrique, then Tyrese Jensen in second. With a final score of 230, Duncan takes home the world champion title.

As the news sinks in, he drops his head and smiles and exchanges several emotional hugs with those around him. He’s happy for the win but is already looking forward to next year, when he’ll dance for the first time in the adult division.

It will be tougher, sure, but he knows what he has to do.

“I have to practice harder,” he says. 

The winners of the various categories perform a victory dance. From left, Jaron Yazzie (Navajo/Apache, Farmington, New Mexico, youth division), Talon Duncan (San Carlos Apache/Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara, Mesa, Arizona, teen), Terry Goedel (Yakama/Tulalip, Rancho Cucamonga, California, senior) and Nakotah LaRance (Hopi/Tewa, Ohkey Ohwingeh, New Mexico, adult).
Mark Henle for Al Jazeera America