Social Dance

Among Iroquoian peoples, social dancing is integral to the life of every community. Sometimes dances are held simply to bring the community together. Other times the social dancing supports the larger religious festivals like the Maple Syrup, Green Corn or even the most important festival in the Iroquois calendar, the Mid winter Festival [Speck 1949/1995].  Most activities take place in the longhouse.  The Iroquois people call themselves the “Haudenosaunee ” meaning “People of the Longhouse” [Davis 1999]. This photo shows a complete longhouse in the background as well as the frame of one with three hearths in the foreground. It is typical of many of the longhouses I  (Rohahes) have been in over the years. The men sit on one side and the women on the other and are further divided by clan. The Mohawks have three clans:  the Bear, Turtle and Wolf Clans.
Image of a longhouse from CIRCLE collection

At a social event, the lead singer-water drum player and several rattle players sit in the centre on two benches facing each other. The dancing takes place in a counter-clockwise direction around the benches. People use instruments at such social events, such as one water drum (used by the lead singer) and many rattles. The rattles are usually left on the benches between dances and songs. The men or boys are permitted to pick up a rattle and join in the music making. The water drum is also left on the benches.  Usually the lead singer or someone else who knows the songs uses it.

In recent times, the younger women have also been taking up the role of singers and rattlers. An all-girl group recorded some very fine social dances in Kahnawake [Sweetgrass Singers 1997].  Different dances include the “Round Dance,” the “Old Moccasin Dance,” and the “Rabbit Dance”. One dance that highlights the effect of cross-cultural contact between the Iroquois and groups from the southern part of the United States is the “Alligator Dance”.

The Seminole people of Florida, who are familiar with alligators, might have given the dance to the Iroquois people. The dance involves couples circling the room to the beat of the singers. At a certain point between verses, the singers perform a refrain (Yo-ho, hee-eh) several times. This cues the couples to spin rapidly to represent the spinning and fighting of two alligators.

The difference between the “Round Dance” in the Iroquois culture and the “Round Dance” of Southern Alberta (described earlier) is interesting. In the Iroquois version, the dancers change directions following the changes in the vocal line and drumming pattern. The Alberta dancers always move to the left in a clockwise manner.

A particular dance that almost everyone delights in is the “Challenge” dance. I say, almost everyone, because young men and boys usually perform this dance. Someone places a feather on the floor and the “challenged” person is required to pick it up with his teeth. Hands are not allowed! This is a game for the younger men in the crowd.  The challenged person gets to show off his flexibility to the assembled crowd’s pleasure, especially the unmarried girls. When the man successfully retrieves the feather he dances a short victory circuit around the longhouse.  He then has the privilege of passing the feather to another male who must place it on the floor and attempt to retrieve it using just his teeth. If the feat is too easy for someone often a young boy will come along and blow the feather away just as the male is about to retrieve it.  This makes it harder for the man to complete the challenge.