July 29, 2014

Dancing queens: Women making a comeback in the fancy dance arena

In the 1950s, young women who had stepped delicately as Southern cloth, buckskin or shawl dancers were suddenly bobbing their heads and hopping low to the ground around the arena floor in feathers and bustles to songs that had once been war dance songs.


TULSA, Okla. – Elizabeth “John-John” Lane is the first person to admit that fancy feather dancing (or just fancy dancing) is a men’s powwow event. That didn’t stop her, however, from putting on the voluminous bustles and regalia that are its trademarks.

People used to stare when they saw her dressed out and in the arena with other fancy dancers, most of whom were men, she said. When she won a powwow contest, they really talked.

“When a woman beats somebody it’s a big thing,” Lane said. “I did know a woman who did not care for me dancing. Another person had to get up and tell her, ‘You’re not going to say nothing.’ I’m sure there are some people who didn’t like it.”

But it mattered little to Lane (Osage/Sac and Fox/Pawnee) and the other girls and women who competed as fancy dancers in regalia either borrowed from a male friend or relative or a hand-me-down from an older brother or cousin.

At one time, there were dozens who became well-known on the circuit.

Jim Anquoe Sr., Kiowa, once listed the names of all the dancers he and others could remember. They came up with 72 women fancy dancers who were actively competing between 1938 to 1960. There were Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Otoe, Pawnee, Muscogee, Caddo, Comanche and Kiowa among them.

“I believe that from 1952 or ‘53 to 1959, women’s fancy feather was at its highest popularity. After that, it slowly started to disappear,” said Anquoe, current chairman of Tulsa Indian Club, which hosts the annual Tulsa Powwow.

In the 1950s, young women who had stepped delicately as Southern cloth, buckskin or shawl dancers were suddenly bobbing their heads and hopping low to the ground around the arena floor in feathers and bustles to songs that had once been war dance songs. Lane, who emerged on the scene as a teenager, said it was the feeling of the fancy feather dance that made her take it up.

“I just liked it. I enjoyed it,” she said. “It just gave me a good feeling to express some good things inside me.”

Anquoe wrote a short article for the Tulsa Powwow Club about women fancy dancers. In his research, he discovered a photo of a young Ida Laura Jones of Oklahoma City dressed in a boy’s fancy feather regalia. As a child, she was called “Babykins.”

One of the luckiest things I did was (to) find a picture of her in her outfit in 1938,” he said.

Anquoe believes his cousin may have been the first female fancy feather dancer at age 2.

“Her dad is my dad’s brother. When he would sing, she was always dancing around,” Anquoe said. “A year later she was moving pretty good, so he fixed her a little fancy dance outfit. She started to dance when he would dress her out. If you see the picture of her I 1938, she looked like a little boy with long thick braids.”

As she grew up, Jones and other girls started to dance with the boys and men. He especially took notice during the 1946 American Indian Exposition in Oklahoma, which is still held in Anadarko, where he saw a Muscogee woman dancer in white aprons, white cape, white feather neck bustle and white feathers in a parade.

Names like Georgette “GeeGee” Palmer, Okemah Randle and Pamela Chibitty come to mind to those who remember like Anquoe. So does the name John-John Lane, a Fairfax girl considered one of the best of the women fancy feather dancers.

“When I was young, my aunt and uncle lived in Ocala, Fla., and they worked at a theme park. We danced there for the tourists,” Lane said.

It was during one of these summer stays in Florida when she was 12 that Lane, already a cloth dancer, started fancy dancing like her uncle.

“My uncle, he belonged to a brave scout troupe. He taught me and my cousin how to hoop dance. I just like it and continued on, and when I got back (to Fairfax), I just continued on dancing.”

Back home, she began competing with her age division in fancy dancing and won or placed high frequently. She actually places better than when she competed as a cloth dancer.

Lane’s best competitive years lasted from her time in the junior division up until the mid 1970s, when she had her daughters. In 1980, she gave up fancy dancing.

Female fancy feather dancers had become so popular that a few powwows created a fancy dance category for women, Anquoe said. But much like Lane, many dancers left that arena to focus on raising children and supporting their families.

While you may still see girls and women dressed as fancy dancers today, often it is for switch dances in which men and women exchange regalia for fun. Yet, some powwows have kept women’s and girls’ fancy dancing on the schedule as dance contest specials in honor or in memoriam of someone.

At the 60th Tulsa Powwow this summer, three girls took the arena floor for such a special and quickly won the audience. Charish Toehay, Kiowa and Osage, took first place.

The 19-year-old Oklahoma City Community College student from Anadarko learned to dance in Southern buckskin style from her grandmother, Delores “Dee-Dee” Goodeagle. When she saw powwows were beginning to hold specials for female fancy feather dancing, she borrowed regalia and began to compete.

“I’m a Southern buckskin dancer, and we dance like (we’re) walking gracefully. I think it shocked my parents and all that because I like being in different categories. I love also dancing fancy shawl, as well,” she said. “It kind of did shock my dad when I first started dancing in the women’s fancy feather.”

Her dad, Jeffery Toehay of Anadarko, is former fancy feather dance champ himself. He helped her to get all the movements and form down, from keeping the rockers on her head moving to maintaining her footwork.

“It’s just fun to get in and hop it,” Charish Toehay said, with other girls and women in fancy feather dancing. “We all know each other. We all just love to have fun, and we love to talk about it, laugh, giggle and watch videos of (dances). … We all love hopping it.”

For Lane, who put on her bustles last summer again for the first time in decades, the feeling of fancy dancing is unlike any other.

“Whenever our drummers sing these songs, and they make you feel good inside, that’s when your best dance comes out of you,” Lane said. “… I guess the only way I can ever explain it, is it was from my heart.”


Charish Toehay, Kiowa and Osage, took first place at this summer’s Tulsa Powwow girls’ fancy dancing contest.

COURTESY PHOTO

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