FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Twenty-five year old Nakotah LaRance won the top prize at the 25th annual World Championship Hoop Dance competition in February beating out seven time champion Derrick Suwaima Davis.
With unseasonably warm temperatures in the 80s, the dancers spun and leapt to the beat of native drums and singers. The dancers told stories with hoops that created intricate symbols of animals and symbols that hold great meaning for Native tribes.
Hoop dancing is a long-standing tradition in many Native cultures. It can involve the use of more than 50 hoops. The continuous circle of the hoops symbolizes the circle of life and the continuous change of the seasons.
Each participant was judged on precision, timing/rhythm, showmanship and speed.
LaRance has been hoop dancing since he was four years old at pow wows he attended during the summer with his aunt and cousins. He started as a fancy dancer, which is a flashy dance usually performed by young men to attract visitors to pow wows.
During one of those summers, he traveled with Davis, who was also a fancy dancer at the time.
"I would watch him perform the hoop dance from time to time," LaRance said. "I was instantly attracted to the dance. Derrick saw my interest in it and made me my first hoops. He also taught me the basic designs that you see in the hoop dance."
LaRance's father, Steve, was also a big influence in creating opportunities for LaRance to dance by getting him booked to perform at conferences, pow wows and art festivals. He also took LaRance to an audition in Flagstaff one weekend for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" in 2004, an appearance that opened more opportunities for LaRance.
After 21 years, LaRance still finds inspiration in the dance because it brings people together in friendship and mutual understanding about the circle of life and how each person has a relationship with nature.
"I really get boosted up when the audience enjoys the beat of the drum, singing and the dance with all the designs that I have created," he said. "I try and keep my performances unique and up tempo and I like how the crowds respond to that."
LaRance said it is a challenge to compete against all the great, and champion, hoop dancers that come from all over the United States and Canada. In his first years competing, he had problems with dropping his hoops and not creating designs as he had intended. But the biggest thing to overcome has been to compete against Davis.
"To compete against Derrick, who I consider my master teacher has always been tough," he said. "He just puts it all out there in the circle when he performs so you know that he is not going to let up for anyone."
This time, late in the day on Feb. 8, as the sun was going down and after a dance off for third and fourth place, LaRance, Hopi/Tewa/Assiniboin, took the top prize in the adult division from Davis, 47, Hopi/Choctaw, who is a seven time world hoop dance champion and last year's champion by six points. It was a blazing and crowd pleasing performance.
"I am honored to have won the title this year," he said. "It was a little bittersweet to take the crown from Derrick, but we are happy whenever we see each other and to share the winners circle with him was an honor as well."