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Hoop Dancing

A Conversation with World Champion and Cirque du Soleil Star Nakotah LaRance.

Photography: Sam Minkler

Most people don’t achieve their dreams before the age of 20, but then Nakotah LaRance isn’t most people. He started winning world championships in hoop dancing when he was a teenager, was still a teen when Hollywood found him, and was only 19 when Cirque du Soleil nabbed him for world tours with the company after discovering a YouTube video of one of his performances. Not too shabby.

I first met LaRance in 2005 when I was his dialogue coach for the TNT/DreamWorks miniseries Into the West. At the time, he was only 15 and an untried actor. But Tim Van Patten, who directed Episode 5 of the six-part series, saw something in LaRance that convinced him to cast the teenager for the part of Voices that Carry: “He’s smart.” Voices that Carry was a central character in that episode, and LaRance carried the part on his young shoulders, holding his own with heavyweights like Keith Carradine. His work in the series won him the Outstanding New Performance in Television/Film Award from the First Americans in the Arts.

As successful as he was in his first outing as an actor, LaRance’s real claim to fame is hoop dancing. A six-time world champion hoop dancer — he placed third in 2009 in the adult division — LaRance got the attention of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he appeared in 2004, billed as “The Most Interesting Person in Arizona.” That, in turn, led to an invitation to compete on the PAX Network’s America’s Most Talented Kids, which LaRance won with the highest score in the history of the show.

Photography: Courtesy Daniel Desmarias / Cirque du Soliel

The success does not seem to have gone to his head; rather, LaRance seems well on the way to knowing who he is and where he comes from as a Native person. His mother, Marian, is Tewa and Navajo; his father, Steve, is Hopi and Assiniboine. Though he was born in Barrow, Alaska, where his parents lived at the time, LaRance grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, which he continues to call home. It was there that he first started dancing at the age of 4 as a young Northern fancy dancer.

I met with 20-year-old LaRance after seeing him perform to talk about hoop dancing, Hollywood, and his dreams for the future.

Cowboys & Indians: What kind of dancing did you do first?
Nakota LaRance:
I did fancy dancing, and I enjoyed it, but I was better at hoop dancing. I love break dancing, too. I would do it with a group of friends, to hip-hop music. I can do a little bit of the salsa, too.

C&I: Who taught you hoop dancing?
Derrick Davis, when I was 5. He’s Hopi. I started dancing at powwows and was introduced to Derrick. He was a four-time world champion in the adult division. One night I stole his hoops.

C&I: Where did hoop dancing originate?
It is believed to have originated in the Southwest, Taos Pueblo, and was a healing ceremony. It spread throughout Indian country and Canada, including the Plains Indians.

C&I: What is the tribal or cultural meaning of hoop dancing?
It’s the beauty of the world, about balance, about Mother Earth. Without Mother Earth and the creatures, there would be no balance. I think of that every time I dance. It’s all about Mother Earth and keeping that balance between us, the creatures, and her.

C&I: What is your favorite thing about doing the hoop dance?
Seeing the eyes of children, the expression in their eyes, capturing their dreams. My favorite audience is children.

C&I: You have performed at home in Arizona, in New Mexico, California, New York, Alaska, Hawaii, and in Germany. How do Native audiences respond in comparison with non-Native audiences?
Native audiences understand the meaning of the dance, and they compliment me for my regalia. Non-Native people ask what the hoops are made of, or why I use five hoops.

C&I: What are the hoops made of? And why do you use five hoops?
The hoops I use are made of custom plastic piping. Most modern hoop dancers use some kind of modern material. In the beginning though, the hoops were made of willow or some other soft wood. I use five hoops because Derrick Davis used five hoops.

C&I: You have to be very fit to dance. How do you train?
I practice hoop dancing two or three times a week — more often and more intensively before a performance or competition. I also do a daily workout that includes calisthenics, running, and stretching. I also like to skateboard, and I board almost every day; that worries my parents — they’re afraid I’ll get injured.

C&I: All that work has paid off. How many hoop dancing championships have you won?
Six — two in the youth division and four in the teenage division. I’ve been lucky enough to place each year at the World Championship Hoop [Dance Contest] held each February at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. This last year I placed third in the adult division.

C&I: What you’ve accomplished in hoop dancing has led to other things, such as movies. How did you become involved with Into the West?
I answered a casting call and auditioned for a small part, and that led to the bigger role of Voices that Carry. It was a great experience; I liked meeting all the people, the crew, and the cast.

C&I: What was the hardest part?
Learning the Lakota dialogue! The weather, sometimes, and the mud.

C&I: What other movie projects have you done?
A USA movie called Three Wise Guys, an independent movie Expiration Date, and two films from The Work and the Glory trilogy. There was a Lifetime movie called Not Like Everyone Else: The True Story of Brandi Blackbear, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for HBO.

C&I: Is acting a serious career possibility for you?
LaRance: Right now hoop dancing is more important, but, yes, I would love to keep acting.

C&I: You’ll be hoop dancing as part of Cirque du Soleil. How do you feel about that?
I’m excited. I’ve always dreamed of traveling all over the world, so I’ll have a chance to do that. Being on my own, too.

C&I: How long do you plan to keep doing the hoop dance?
There’s a Navajo hoop dancer named Jones Benally, and he’s [nearly] 70, I think. So I’ll probably dance until I can’t do it anymore.


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