Cree Round Dances

By Anna Hoefnagels

Round Dances are performed by First Peoples all across North America.  The Plains Cree hold their Round Dances in the fall and winter, once the hunting and trapping seasons are over.  Usually held indoors, these night-time events occur on weekends and special days such as New Year’s Eve and Boxing Day. Usually Round Dance gatherings are one night in duration, although occasionally they may last for two nights in a row. The gathering starts in the evening sometime between 8 and 10, and lasts until 3 or 4 in the morning. Similar to other social gatherings, prohibition of drugs and alcohol emphasizes a clean and healthy lifestyle at Round Dances.

According to some sources, the Plains Cree received this dance in the late 19th century from the Assiniboine, who called it the Moving Slowly Dance. Originally a healing dance, it became a social dance, and in its current form serves both social and ceremonial functions. Often sponsored by a family or community organization, either as a memorial gathering or a primarily social event, Round Dance celebrations vary from community to community. When sponsored as a memorial service, the event includes prayers, Round dancing, a giveaway and a ceremonial feast, to balance the social and ceremonial goals of the sponsors.

The main dancing style seen at this Cree gathering is Round dancing. Its accompaniment consists of a group of singers striking hand drums in unison. The dancers join hands to form a large circle, symbolically indicating the equality of all people in the circle. The dancers move to their left with a side-shuffle step to reflect the long-short pattern of the drumbeat, bending their knees to emphasize the pattern.

While this is the main style of dancing at these Cree gatherings, the Tail Wagging Dance, or kawepayiwe, is occasionally interspersed. Some researchers have described the Tail Wagging Dance as a variation of the circle formation, in which a man breaks into the circle to dance beside a woman to whom he is attracted. According to these sources, when the music changes, the dancers pair off into couples and continue dancing in a clockwise direction, but now facing the pair in front of them rather than the centre of the circle. The next time that the music changes, the couples disband and form a large circle again, continuing to alternate between couple dancing and group dancing.

In its current form the Tail Wagging Dance is performed by groups made up of one man and two women. The man holds his hands out palm-side up, with his hands in loose fists. Each woman holds one of the man’s hands, and the women dance backwards, led by the male who dances forwards. This is an honouring dance, and is usually held prior to the giveaway portion of the evening.

The songs used for Round Dances have a structure similar to powwow songs, but their content is quite different. The language used is a fractured form of English combined with vocables such as “hey ya.” Considerable experimentation occurs in dynamic shadings and performance style so that the end or tail of the song may become like a chant or the song may end very softly. As in powwow songs, the singers use warbled notes, strong unison singing, and interjections of cries and whoops. In Canada, depending on the location, the singers use individual hand drums or a large bass or powwow drum as accompaniment (Whidden 2005: 34).

At social gatherings and powwows Round Dances are a way of getting more people to dance and to showcase different styles of Indigenous dancing. As with many social dances, Round Dances foster pride and a sense of community amongst participants, renewing relationships with one another while celebrating First Peoples’ identity.

This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
Native Dance