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Highlighted by lightning footwork that seems to float on air, the Smoke Dance of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Nation is the most dynamic and popular competition dance at powwows across the Northeast. Chris Thomas is one of this generation’s most celebrated smoke dancers, and an educator who uses performance to teach about Haudenosaunee culture and history.
Also known as “People of the Longhouse,” the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is made up of the Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations of central and upstate New York. (“Iroquois” was the name given to the Haudenosaunee by French Jesuits.) Haudenosaunee ceremonial dances have spiritual significance, and are reserved for members of the tribal community. However celebratory “social” dances, like the Rabbit and Old Moccasin dances, can be performed in public settings. Many of these dances, in turn, have developed competition forms. The Smoke Dance is a newer dance that evolved in the last century. Some says it mimics clearing out smoke from the longhouse; others point to its likely roots in the War Dance, with its mimicry of tracking increasingly sped up to challenge the 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. As Thomas points out now, traditional Haudenosaunee dance isn’t taught; instead a dancer learns by watching and then participating, eventually building their own style within the dynamic framework of traditional dance vocabulary, costume, and singing. When he was a teenager, his stepfather Bill Crouse brought him to weekend shows and pow wows, 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 Thomas presents are in Seneca, which is closely related to his mother tongue, Onondaga. Chris Thomas also uses dance and song as an educational tool; he comes to Lowell with four dancers from his performing troupe, members of the Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca Nations, together teaching the rich history and culture of the Haudenosaunee.