As a child, ShanDien Sonwai LaRance never thought her love for hoop dancing would take her around the world. But her dad knew.
“Keep hoop dancing,” her dad often said. “It’s going to open doors for you and take you places that you never would have experienced or known.”
LaRance, who goes by Sonwai, her Hopi name which represents the sun, took that advice to heart.
She followed in the footsteps of her brother Nakotah, a nine-time world hoop dance champion, participating in competitions across the country. The two also performed internationally for nearly a decade with the traveling Cirque du Soleil show “Totem,” which tells the story of human evolution.
The siblings also competed a combined 30 times in the annual World Championship Hoop Dance Contest at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, including the most recent in-person event in February 2020. In 2021, the competition was held virtually due to the pandemic. It’s the biggest competition of its kind in North America.
The 2020 competition was the last time Sonwai performed with her brother. Nakotah passed away in July 2020.
The Heard competition is back in person and Sonwai, who is Hopi, Tewa, Navajo and Assiniboine, will dance in the March 26-27 event. She hopes to honor her brother and perform with the mindset he carried with him every time he danced.
“I just want to go with that healing energy that my brother came with every year,” Sonwai said. “It’s not about the competition, it’s about going out and enjoying yourself and just having fun. I think that’s the best way to go about things.
“My brother inspired so many new tricks, so much speed, art and athleticism to hoop dancing after he returned from Cirque du Soleil. He was a huge inspiration to the hoop dance community, especially to the youth he taught.”
What to expect at the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest
The World Championship Hoop Dance Contest draws over 80 competitors representing over 30 tribes across North America and nearly 5,000 spectators each year, said Dan Hagerty, director of strategic development and programming at the Heard Museum.
The competition presents the finest dancers in youth, adult and senior divisions. Each dancer has to make it through two rounds in order to reach the finals. Dancers are judged on precision, timing, rhythm, showmanship and speed.
According to Indian Country Today, the hoop dance is significant to many tribes across North America. In their origin stories the hoop is said to have been used in healing ceremonies.
The evolution of the hoop dance into its current form is credited to Tony White Cloud, Jemez Pueblo. He’s considered the “founder of the modern hoop dance,” according to Indian Country Today. In the 1930s, White Cloud began using multiple hoops and popularized the customizing of regalia and hoops with designs and symbols to portray the dancer’s culture.
Talent runs deep in the LaRance family
Sonwai, 29, is originally from Flagstaff and now lives in her ancestral community of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo in New Mexico. She will perform in the adult division, a category that her brother won three times.
While Sonwai has not won in eight tries at the Heard competition, she is always inspired by the real reason she performs.
“I always try to remind myself about the story I’m telling, Sonwai said. “If I’m flying like an eagle, I really try to embody that movement of soaring through the wind and flying through it.
“When I do fast-paced dances, it almost feels like your feet are on fire, like you’re dancing so fast and there’s just no stopping. The music and the energy just completely take over your body but you are also trying to control that energy.
“But overall, I think more than anything, we are also remembering why we do it — the blessings that come within your heart and your mind as you’re dancing. I really try to feel those and push that through so that the audience can feel that as well.”
That passion and commitment clearly resonate with audiences.
“Talent runs deep in the LaRance family,” Hagerty said. “When I watched her in 2020, she was so dynamic and she has such an exciting presence when she’s in the Hoop Arena. The audience just sort of wakes up. And so she just has a very, very special quality to her performance and her skills are just dynamite.”
‘My brother was my biggest inspiration’
Growing up, Sonwai was no stranger to the arts. She and Nakotah, their sister Nizhoni, who is now a physician, and younger brother Cree often traveled around the country with their parents. Steve LaRance is a sculptor and a jeweler; Marian Denipah-LaRance is a painter and a jeweler.
Their parents traveled the powwow trail and showcased their work at shows and festivals. Nakotah started dancing first, and their parents encouraged him to teach his siblings.
“My brother was my biggest inspiration for hoop dancing,” Sonwai said. “As early as 4, my brother would perform at all these festivals all over the United States. He became so good, so fast. By the time he was in the youth division at around 8 or 9 years old he was already winning championships.”
Her travels with her parents taught her that she had an opportunity to share her culture beyond her own community.
“To be constantly immersed in the Native American art world exposed us to sharing our culture and learning how unique our culture is,” Sonwai says.
Sonwai originally wanted to be a painter, but when her brother joined Cirque du Soleil she followed two years later. The siblings danced in Spain, Germany, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan.
“I realized it was a way for me to travel the world and to share my culture at the same time, which is what I love the most,” Sonwai said.
Mentoring youth dancers
When the pandemic hit, Cirque du Soleil had to shut down. Sonwai and Nakotah went back home to New Mexico to teach the young people in their community. Many of their students are entered in the youth division of the Heard championship.
Sonwai is also a model and an actress, and she works as an instructor at the Lightning Boy Foundation, a nonprofit formed in 2013 by her father and Nakotah. It provides traditional hoop dance instruction and other dance programming to Native American youths.
“They invest so much time and effort in mentoring young dancers,” Hagerty said. “They’ve done an incredible job of using hoop dancing as a way of encouraging the young people in their communities to not only learn a skill, but as a way of teaching life skills and being with and respecting one another.”
Sonwai hopes to create an online platform called the Handsome Star Dance Project. The goal is to make hoop dancing and other Native American dances accessible through video tutorials and online coaching workshops. The name is in honor of her brother’s Hopi name, Lomasohu or “Handsome Star.”
“There’s so many coaching workshops online like Peloton and all these other amazing fitness apps,” Sonwai says. “But there’s nothing that is directed to Native American people.”
Reflecting on Nakotah’s life and legacy
During the hoop dancing championships, the Heard Museum will present the LaRance family with a blanket and an honor song to commemorate Nakotah’s life and contributions to the community.
The museum will also produce a shirt with his image that will be available at the gift shop a few weeks after the competition.
“This presentation is going to be a moment where we can reflect on Nakotah’s life and impact in the hoop dancing community,” Hagerty said.
As the competition nears, Sonwai can’t help but carry her brother’s legacy beyond the dancing arena.
“He was just such an inspiring dancer that brought so much to the hoop community,” Sonwai said.
“I just want to go and I want to dance and show them what my brother taught me and I’m going to keep carrying it on by sharing our culture to the world and teaching our youth so that they can be strong, independent and healthy-minded — physically mentally and spiritually.”
Heard Museum World Championship Hoop Dance Contest
When: 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, March 26; 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, March 27.
Where: Heard Museum, 2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix.
Admission: $22, $20 for age 65 and older, $10 for American Indians, $9 for students and ages 6-17, free for age 5 and younger.
Details: 602-252-8840, https://heard.org.
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