The Round Dance, a Native American dance of friendship, happens at powwows and other gatherings of Indigenous people all over the country. But as Louis Mofsie, the director of the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, noted on Friday night: “We have some of the best round dancing right here on First Avenue in New York.”
Mr. Mofsie was hosting his company’s 44th annual concert, a vibrantly costumed showcase of Native American dances, at the Theater for the New City in the East Village. While new events led by Indigenous artists have recently taken root in New York — including the expansive First Nations Dialogues and, at the Park Avenue Armory last fall, the First United Lenape Nations Pow Wow — the Thunderbirds, as they’re known, have been dancing in the city for more than 50 years.
Mr. Mofsie, 82, was born to parents from the Hopi and Winnebago tribes in Downtown Brooklyn, the same area that was home to a community of Mohawk ironworkers. He founded the Thunderbirds in 1963 with neighborhood friends who shared an interest in preserving their traditional dances.
An all-volunteer troupe — the oldest of its kind in New York — the company also set out to raise scholarship funds for Native American students, a focus that continues today. Mr. Mofsie said that back when the group first came together, “if you didn’t come from a reservation, you could not get any federal help to go to college.”
The company’s repertory has grown to encompass dances from across the United States and parts of Canada. Friday’s program featured a Deer Dance from the Yaqui Tribes of southern Arizona and New Mexico; Jingle Dress and Grass Dances from the Northern Plains people; an arresting Hoop Dance performed by Maria Poncé, a dancer of Cherokee and Taino descent; and many others.
Mr. Mofsie prefaced each with a few words on its origins or significance. The Eagle Dance, from the Hopi in Arizona, was formerly a sacred dance asking for rain. The Robin Dance, from the Iroquois, celebrated early signs of spring. The Fancy Dance, from the Oklahoma tribes, is popular in competition at powwows, where dancers are judged on their rhythm and regalia.
After the show, Mr. Mofsie sat down to talk about the history and mission of the Thunderbirds, whose performances continue through Feb. 3. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When you introduced the Eagle Dance tonight, you mentioned the difference between sacred and social dances.
The dances we do are not ceremonial or sacred. They’re social dances, and that’s because today on many of the reservations, they still practice their own Native religions. And as part of that religious practice those dances and songs are closed to outsiders, so of course we wouldn’t do them.
The social dances have a reason, but it isn’t necessarily religious. I might wear something because I like the color, and I like the way it looks. Somebody might say, “Why do you carry a fan?” and I say, “Well, if you get hot, you have something to fan yourself with!” [Laughs.] That’s all there is to it.
How did the Thunderbirds begin?
Myself and some other founders of the group are what I often call the first generation off the reservation. Our parents all came from reservations, but we were born here in the city.
As kids our families taught us dances from our own tribes, but we were very interested in learning other dances, particularly from the Mohawk people in our neighborhood. So we said, why don’t we start a little dance group? We’ll teach each other our dances, then we’ll go to the Mohawk people and learn some of their dances.
When did you become a full-fledged company?
We all went off to college, and when we came back we reorganized and called ourselves the Thunderbird dancers, after the clan my mother belonged to in the Winnebago tribe. As we got older, we started traveling to learn dances from around the country.
I think some of the dances we do now are no longer done on the reservations where they come from, and I’m so happy that we had an opportunity to learn them and keep them alive. That’s primarily what the group is for, to preserve the dances.
There’s also an educational purpose, it seems.
We wanted to perform for non-Native audiences, so they could have a better understanding of what these dances are all about — that they have an origin, a story, a purpose. We don’t just get out there and move around like you see in the movies.
How are the dances passed down?
For us, we travel to the reservations where they’re doing the dances. For instance, we’ve been up to the Iroquois people, to many of the reservations where they live in upstate New York, and we’ve been invited to come into the longhouse and dance with them. So that’s how we learn, by going there and participating in the dance.
It’s also about growing up with it, the people you meet. I started dancing when I was about 5 or 6. I always tell people there isn’t a school where you can go to learn how to do Native American dancing. It has to come through family.
Is there often a difference between roles for women and men?
There is. A lot of the Iroquois dances are done by men. But one thing I find interesting is that in the Robin Dance, you notice that all the dancers turn around to face the outside, then turn to face the inside.
As they’re going around in the circle, turning one by one?
Yes, and I was curious when we learned the dance: Why is it that they turn around? And they said that’s to represent and recognize the duality and the opposites in life. As they dance, they’re mindful of the fact that there’s always one side, then the other side, so they always turn.