Kailayne Jensen, Dine, Mericopa

American First Nations compete at World Championship Hoop Dancing Contest

Nathan Ouellette
Medill Reports

PHOENIX, Ariz. – A chorus of voices and the echo of drums engulfed the sunbathed amphitheater at the Heard Museum this month as dancers from American Indian and Canadian First Nations gathered for the 28th Annual World Championship Hoop Dancing Contest.

The dances emerged from tribal healing ceremonies. Now, hoop dancing has grown from its traditional roots into a broader and more public celebration.  Individual dancers manipulate colorful hoops with their bodies – often transforming as few as four to as many as 50 hoops into designs coordinated with intricate footwork set to the rhythm of drums and voices. Judges calculate scores based on precision, timing, showmanship, creativity and speed.

This year’s competition drew dancers from 36 nations and 5,000 spectators over the course of two days. Dancers from age one to 62 competed in five categories – Tiny-Tot, Youth, Teen, Adult and Senior.

“The best part about the annual competition is the reunion with the contestants each year,” Shaliyah Ben, Director of Public Programing at the Heard Museum said. “We’ve all sort of formed an extended family, a hoop family. It’s so nice to see the youth contestants grow up and advance to the teen and adult divisions.”

Reigning Youth Division champion, Kailayne Jensen of the Navajo and Maricopa Tribes, successfully defended her title in this year’s competition. Her brother Tyrese Jensen earned third place in the Adult Division while her father, Lane Jensen, took first in the Senior Division. Other champions include Nakota LaRance of the Hopi-Tewa and Assiniboine tribes in the Adult Division and Ascension Harjo of the Mohawk, Kickapoo and Seminole tribes in the Teen Division.

“The interest [for the Championship] has always been there,” Ben said. “What has been interesting has been to watch the growth in interest and respect for the tradition of hoop dancing. I think that people like seeing that this is an intergenerational and family event.”

Photo at top: Reigning Youth Division champion, Kailayne Jensen of the Navajo and Maricopa Tribes, dances her routine. Kailayne successfully defended her title in this year’s competition. (Nathan Ouellette/MEDILL)