Learning About Native American Traditions through Native American Movement

By Laurel Lesio, Dance Teacher

Around the world, both children and adults have been dancing and playing with hoops for thousands of years*. For over 20 years, third graders at Grace have learned about hoop dancing in a Native American form. This exciting, vigorous and meaningful style of dance inspires creativity and challenges both the body and the mind to work at their best. And most of all, it’s fun!

I first learned about Native American hoop dancing when I attended a festival in upstate New York in the 1990’s. There, I met Mr. Cliff Matias (Kichwa/Taino). I saw his hoop dance performance, and I learned about the Redhawk Arts Council, an arts and cultural organization he helped create in Brooklyn. That very same year, I invited Mr. Matias to visit Grace Church School to teach us about indigenous cultures and dance forms. He has worked with the third grade ever since, teaching technique, form, and the varied meanings behind hoop dancing. When the students have mastered his dance sequence, I guide them into choreographing a hoop dance sequence of their own. Because the third grade social studies curriculum includes the study of First Nations people, particularly those of the Northeast region, there is true cross-curricular study for every third grader.

This school year, the hoop dancing curriculum continued as usual as Mr. Matias visited each third grade classroom virtually at the end of October. He was joined by one of his fellow dancers; they sang and danced, taught us about the origins of the hoop dance, and then walked us through some really cool moves! The event highlighted how rhythmic expression is universal. In all of its forms, dance is exciting to both watch and do. The human body responds automatically when our brains are stimulated by the combination of rhythm, emotion, and intellect.

Mr. Matias was generous enough to answer a few questions concerning education and of course, hoop dancing. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

Ms. Lesio: I know that you regularly bring your educational dance programs to schools like ours where there is a very small, if any, number of native students. Very often, your program is the first exposure these young children have to indigenous art forms. How then, do you see your role as an educator?

Mr. Matias: It is an important part of breaking the stereotypes that students may have of Native traditions.

Ms. Lesio: I know that in addition to being an expert hoop dancer, you sing and play both the drum and flute. I believe that you are also a visual artist. It seems to me that you have specifically chosen to employ the arts to educate children. Can you say more about this choice? Are the arts integral to you and your cultural heritage? And when learning about indigenous cultures, what advantage might the arts have over other mediums such as written texts?

Mr. Matias: I feel the arts allow students to engage in a very different way than just textbooks. They allow students to create a physical, emotional and mental connection to the traditions they are learning about.

Ms. Lesio: I have heard you say that the dance hoop can represent the “circle of life” and when throwing the hoop and expecting its return, you have used a metaphor about effort. Can you please tell us a little bit about those two things and leave us with a way to connect hoop dancing to our daily lives?

Mr. Matias: It is the understanding that what we do in our lives returns to us. Working hard at a specific subject or task will often bring about positive results, but if you do not apply yourself to a task, craft or discipline, you cannot be upset if you do not get the results you were hoping for.


*Notably, the popular American game commonly known as “hula hooping” uses a large plastic hoop. It is not a part of the traditional and often sacred Hula dancing of the indigenous people of Hawaii and the Polynesian Islands.