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Derrick Suwaima Davis: A World Champion Hoop Dancer Breaks It Down

Derrick Suwaima Davis (Ken Ross Photography)

Derrick Suwaima Davis (Ken Ross Photography)

November 20, 2012
Special to Indian Country Today Magazine

As a child growing up in his native Arizona Derrick Suwaima Davis, Hopi/Choctaw, was fairly certain how he fit into life on the reservation.  “I got my first dance clothes when I was three.  I was always around native songs and dances, but that’s when I considered my life as a dancer official.”  For Davis, who was the Head Man Dancer at the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. in 2004, dancing was both his destiny and means of escape – a place of imagination where he could use its intricate forms as a means of self-expression.  His first hoop dancing championship was in 1992, his most recent in 2010, and he has earned the title of World Champion Hoop Dancer five times.  As a member of the pop/rock group Clan/destine he has worked with the Heard Museum, the Phoenix Symphony, the American Dance Theater, Canyon Records and Willie Nelson continuing to share his Hopi culture with thousands of admirers around the world.  Davis has been featured on the covers of leading publications like Smithsonian and Native Peoples and was once named Cosmopolitan’s “Man of the Year”.

As one of Arizona’s cultural treasures Davis has been Artistic Director of Native Trails, an intertribal collaborative presented by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and produced by the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Nine performers including Davis represent the best of the Southwest region, in a twice-weekly free show at the amphitheater at the Scottsdale Civic Center Park where the hour-long performances showcase song and dance using traditional instruments, regalia and stories.  Unique indigenous cuisine, like cactus chili, blue corn mush and mesquite muffins, are sold there alongside the more familiar fry bread.  Look for the 2013 season to start up again on January 17 and run through April 6 on Thursdays and Saturdays at noon.  Visit for more information.  You can also see Davis perform daily at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale where for over twenty years he has been part of a three-person 5 p.m. show.

In a recent interview he told ICTMN of his early life with its traditional influences and why he feels the need to share his culture with the world.

What was your childhood like?

My father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and took us a lot of places.  I spent part of my life on the Navajo reservation and summers with my grandparents on the Hopi reservation that is surrounded by the Navajo reservation.

When did you first become interested in dancing?

I never thought I would end up in my adulthood being a performer.  I just grew up singing and dancing as part of our culture capturing history and expressing gratitude and encouraging good life.  It wasn’t until I moved down to the Phoenix Valley and was asked to be part of a Native American dance troupe where we performed at resorts and cultural festivals.  I saw how it would be a way to educate people about Native culture.

Who was your greatest influence?

My grandfather as far as information and experiences and putting it all into song and dance.  He was well known in Hopi.

How did you develop your own style?

I first saw the dance when I was around the intertribal gatherings in New Mexico.  I was already a champion fancy dancer.  As a young boy my father made us hoops.  I didn’t really understand the significance but it was something I was drawn to.  We began to imitate the dance.  I continued fancy dancing but later got involved with the Hopi cultural dances.  There are a lot of parallels with those two art forms.  When I moved to Phoenix I joined the Eagle Spirit Dance Group.  I was asked if I would also do intertribal eagle dancing along with hoop dancing and the horsetail dance.  I got into it at the Heard Museum where they had the World Championship Hoop Dancing contests.  That’s where all us hoop dancers inspired one another.

As I was coming along I really began to understand the story.  The origin of the dance goes back to the Healing Dance where the shaman or the patient would pass through the hoop and whatever ailment was disturbing the patient would be dismissed.  And although this dance is done in a public and competitive format, it still conveys that message of healing and restoring balance and the Hopi culture and how we talk about First, Second, Third and how we are now in a Fourth World.

At the end of the dance I set down a four-hoop globe.  Each time I pick up one of those hoops it acknowledges times of adversity and prosperity, and how through time it’s the plants, the animals and the insects that have taught human beings how to utilize the resources around us.  And so, as we are stewards and guardians, it’s through our songs and our dances we ask and encourage everything to be healthy.  Because if the environment is healthy, then we are going to be healthy.  Through our art forms and with our good intentions we encourage wellbeing.  The hoop dance encompasses a large amount of teaching.

Did you learn a specific pattern of dance steps and later interpret it for yourself?

The dance steps and the rhythm are based more on the intertribal pow wow style of music. I used that style of song and dance for most of my hoop dance career.  That goes back to the fancy dance style of footwork.  The showmanship and athleticism I learned from fancy dance I brought into hoop dancing.  There is some crossover.  The reason for dancing with five hoops is because in the Southwest we don’t get much rain.  In many ways we must do the best we can with the least amount possible so you’re not overharvesting or being selfish with the natural resources.  Instead we let the plant community and the animal and insect community be strong and grow in numbers.   That’s where a lot of the story in my dancing comes from.

At a young age I was introduced to ‘dry farming’ that we still do at Hopi.  In the Southwest we have been in a drought.  When I remember the days when I was young and rainfall was plentiful, it’s easy to understand the importance of nature and to encourage everything to be healthy.  In the dance, although there may be mechanics involved, there is also the inspiration of what the dance continues to represent.  It is filled with its own type of prayer and desire and expressing gratitude.  So when I make the various patterns I know how important it is for the insects, like when I make the butterfly, or similarly if I make a hummingbird, or eagle or buffalo.  I have learned not only from Hopi, but also from schooling, how important these creatures are and how everything fits into the circle of life, the web of life, which is what the hoop represents.

Do you integrate different forms in your performances?  Are there strict guidelines for a contest?

Each one of us hoop dancers has our own story that we like to share.  I am one of maybe two dancers who use only five hoops.  Everyone else dances with from ten to maybe sixty hoops.  It’s not how many hoops you use.  Any art evokes some kind of emotion whether it’s a painting, a sculpture, or singing and dancing.  They all evoke some kind of emotion.  The music and the movement combined make people feel really wonderful.  Any talented or gifted artist realizes that we really are just an intermediary between something higher than we are, and as performers we are just a vehicle to share our blessings with those in the audience.

Do you have different feelings when you dance?

Yes. I think that the objective of sharing the dance is always the same, but certainly what we have most recently experienced in our lives shapes how the dance is shared.  I always feel that I’ve done the same dance, but people who see it will say that I’ve done something different in it.  And of course after a six-minute dance there’s no way I can remember everything I did!  I may notice simply that the floor was smoother or uneven or the song was faster or slower.  So each performance is unique and influenced by the audience.

Have have you performed outside of the U.S. and what has it meant to you?

Yes, and that’s what I’ve really enjoyed.  I’ve been to half of Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Denmark, Germany and Spain and up to Alaska and Hawaii, and Canada.  I’ve brought our Native Southwestern culture around the world and they have shared their songs and stories with me.  It has helped me understand how much alike we are as human beings and the geography and history that have shaped our cultures.  There are both similarities and also a uniqueness to the different cultures.

What else are you passionate about?

I was honored to record a PSA for the Arizona Department of Health Services on Diabetes Prevention.  It’s an issue that means a lot to me.

Do you have a favorite drum and singer to perform with?

Through the years I’ve worked with various singers.  I work with three different singers for the two-man performances.  Most are based on the intertribal rhythm and they incorporate the Hopi language as well as our rhythms.  It makes it very unique from other hoop dancers.

How would you advise a young person just getting started?

It’s important for young people to really listen to who they are.   What I mean by that is we all have a gift, a purpose here in life.  As a young boy I experienced contradiction and ideas of wanting to live a healthy life.  I want all children to hang on to their innocence, their dignity, and make healthy decisions.  Hopefully their songs and dances will be an art that encourages wellbeing.  Don’t worry about being unique.  Just be yourself.  As a father I don’t expect my boys to grow up to be like me.  They have a gift and a purpose.  So if I live my life with good intentions and I stay true to who I am, then I think that’s a good role model for my boys to stay true to who they are.

Even though I can’t put everything into words our cultural singing and dancing was a way to express myself in this art form.  It allowed me to be who I am.  I’m fortunate to speak politely and honestly and when I do share my culture I never say that I’m right, but that the power of choice is up to everybody.  Hopefully what I do share is an inspiration to people to be who they are and accomplish their goals.

Derrick can be reach through

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