Flagstaff's Famous Hoop Dancer

Phoenix, AZ – Host Intro:

Earlier this month more than 60 Native American dancers from across North America converged on the Heard Museum in Phoenix for the annual world championship hoop dance contest. Part dance, part sport, part cultural showcase, the event drew more than 10,000 spectators. One of the star competitors was a Flagstaff teen who's parlayed hoop dancing fame into a budding Hollywood career. From KNAU's Indian Country News Bureau, Daniel Kraker reports.

The drum beat starts, and Nakotah Larance steps into the ring. The lean, willowy 18 year old Hopi dances and spins with dizzying speed, slowly picking up hoops off the ground with his feet. He weaves his body in and out of the hoops, transforming them into a kaleidoscope of designs: first a flower, then an eagle, then a flapping butterfly.

The hoop dance is traditionally a healing ceremony. It's believed to have originated at Taos pueblo, where it's said every time the dancer passed through the hoop he added one day to the sick person's life. But today's dancers add their own modern flair. LaRance is no exception.

"I put some break dancing in at the end, at one point I'm spinning four hoops on my arms they're going in different directions, and I do the moon walk "

Nakotah Larance started dancing when he was four. He's since won five world hoop dancing championships in the youth and teen divisions. As he racked up titles, he began to receive some national attention.

Leno: Hi Nakotah! Hi Jay!

In 2004, before he was even in high school, Larance appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Post sound of Steve explaining to Jay what they're going to do

That's Nakotah's father Steve, a Flagstaff based artist. He says his son didn't really grasp the significance of the appearance.

We were all a little bit nervous, he doesn't stay up that late, so I had to explain to him about the program, how he launches a lot of careers just by having them come and be on his show.

And that's exactly what happened for Nakotah Larance. Shortly after his Tonight Show appearance, he made his acting debut in Steven Spielberg's TV miniseries Into the West. He's since been in several other miniseries and films. Most recently he played one of Sitting Bull's sons in the award-winning HBO movie Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee. But through it all, LaRance has stayed humble.

"I'm very fortunate, but I'm only as far as I am because of my family."

Larance is a junior at Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy. He wants to continue acting, and plans to follow in his dad's footsteps as a traditional jeweler. But he isn't about to give up hoop dancing.

At this year's Heard Museum contest, LaRance competed in the adult category for the first time. He was one of six dancers to qualify for the final round.

I've known Nakotah since he was a little boy, he's phenomenal. I've always admired him for his dancing, and he's inspired my children as well."

That's Moontee Sinqua, also a member of the Hopi tribe. The 42 year old is competing in the senior division. His son is dancing in the teen competition.

I'm very, very happy that the children are dancing, that's something we know won't go away, it's not something you learn in school whether they realize or not it's in their blood, the drum barely starts, they're not anywhere near the arena, and they're all bouncing around, I laugh every time I see it it's really, really good to see this getting passed on, it's something that inspires us as people.

And it's something that some people believe could inspire many more people. Deborah Krol, the Heard Museum's marketing director and a member of the Salinan tribe of California, thinks hoop dancing someday could become an Olympic event.

If ever a sport grounded in native tradition is an Olympic contender, it would be the hoop dance, because even the grading scale is just like ice skating, they grade it on the lichen scale, it's a combination of athleticism, artistry, poise, precision, and it's just smooth as silk when it's done right.

Dancers also have to deal with the pressure of competition. In the final round of dancing, Nakotah Larance uncharacteristically dropped a hoop and finished 6th. The winner was Charles Denny, who like LaRance is 18 and was competing in the adult category for the first time.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker in Phoenix.