Schenectady's home for history
Highlighted by lightning footwork that seems to float on air, the Smoke Dance of the Haudenosaunee Nation is the most dynamic and popular competition dance at powwows across the Northeast. Onondaga artist Chris Thomas is one of this generation’s most celebrated smoke dancers, recognized for the beauty and fluidity of his steps. He is also an inspiring educator who uses performance to teach about Haudenosaunee culture and history, from the public schools to the festival stage.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is made up of the Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations in what is now central and Upstate New York. In pre-colonial times, these nations forged a powerful sociopolitical alliance based upon a prophetic agreement called Great Law of Peace; their confederacy later served as a major inspiration for the authors of the U.S. Constitution. While European colonizers called them Iroquois, their own name is Haudenosaunee, which means “People of the Longhouse.”
Just as the longhouse dwelling has a public face and a private interior, Haudenosaunee dance has both public and private forms. The ceremonial dances have spiritual significance, and thus are reserved for members of the tribal community. However celebratory “social” dances, like the Rabbit and Old Moccasin dances, have always been performed for and even with guests in public settings with the accompaniment of singing and drumming. Many of these social dances have, in turn, developed competition forms. The Smoke Dance is a newer, competition dance that evolved in the mid-20th century. Some say its swooping arm movements mimic clearing out smoke from the longhouse. Others believe it is rooted in the ceremonial War Dance, performed over a steadily intensifying drumbeat to challenge the spinning dancers.
Chris Thomas was introduced to the power of dance in the most traditional of ways: he remembers the joy he felt as a young child, walking with his aunt, Eileen Thomas, down the road to the Onondaga longhouse, where he would be mesmerized by the dancers’ footwork. When he was a teenager, his stepfather Bill Crouse brought him to weekend shows and powwows, where Thomas began to make a name for himself as a competition dancer. Crouse, who is Seneca, also taught Thomas to sing; to this day many of the songs he presents are in Seneca, which is closely related to his mother tongue, Onondaga.
As Thomas points out now, traditional Haudenosaunee dance isn’t taught, and children are never pressured to join in. Each aspiring dancer learns by watching and participating, eventually building their own style within the dynamic framework of traditional dance vocabulary, costume, and singing. Chris Thomas & His Smoke Dancers are a multigenerational ensemble featuring talented performers at varying points in this journey, from Thomas’s 10-year-old daughter Awksanah to his longtime friend Wesley Halsey, a powerful singer and dancer with a wealth of knowledge of Haudenosaunee history and tradition. All aspects of the dance are culturally and artistically linked, with the performers and their families making their own dance regalia, rattles, and drums. Together they present an exhilarating introduction to Haudenosaunee history and culture through the grace and symbolism of traditional dance.
This event will be held outside, so please dress accordingly and feel free to bring a chair or blanket.
This program is made possible by NYSCA, New York State Council on the Arts.