Of all my favorite Native American dances, the Fancy-Shawl is my favorite to watch but personally, I admire the Jingle Dress dancers the most. Without a doubt, it is certainly the story and the meaning behind the Jingle Dress Dance that makes me appreciate it even more.
There are slight variations on the story of the Jingle Dress Dance; for example, one story attributes its origin to a dream by an Ojibwa holy man in Minnesota, in which four women appeared in jingle dresses. Although there are other versions of the story, the common consensus is that the idea of the Jingle Dress Dance came to a man as a vision and that the origins of the story can be traced to the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes region.
The most recent recount of the story I heard dates back to a Native American dance demonstration I attended on June 2015. From that event, this is the story I remember:
“Once there was a medicine man from the Ojibwe tribe of Northern Minnesota. His granddaughter was very ill. He had a dream in which a spirit wearing a jingle dress came to him and told him to make one of these dresses and put it on his granddaughter to cure her. When he awoke, he and his wife proceeded to assemble the dress as described by the spirit of his dream. When finished, they and others brought his granddaughter to the dance hall and she put on the dress. During the first circle around the room, she needed to be carried. During the second circle around the room, she could barely walk and needed the assistance of several women. The third circle around the room she found she could walk without assistance and during the fourth circle around the room, she was able to dance.”
As I stand there and watch the Jingle Dress dancers wearing their colorful jingle dresses, I can just imagine the young granddaughter from the story feeling ill and barely walking. She puts on the heavy dress as instructed by his grandparents and not having the slightest desire or ability to stand on her own she trusts her grandfather’s wisdom and knowledge.
How many times have we felt unable to stand on our own when we’re feeling ill and yet we get up, put aside our feelings and do what we’re supposed to do regardless of how our body feels? The young girl’s heavy dress (I will explain later what makes this dress heavy), is a symbolism of her illness. Sometimes an illness can feel like wearing a “heavy dress” that weights us down; making us feel as if we have the weight of the world on our shoulders and we feel we can’t carry it no more.
As her feet touches the ground her body does not feel like standing on her own, let alone dance, but she trusts her grandfather. Her family and other women from her community help her to stand on her own and take the first step. She can barely walk but regardless of how she feels, she keeps going. On the second round she needs the assistance of only a few women and tries to dance regardless of what her aching body keeps telling her. On the third round she no longer needs the assistance of anyone and she starts walking on her own. And finally, on the fourth round she begins to dance on her own.
As the dance progresses she suddenly forgets about her aching body and even though she’s tired she begins to feel a force inside of her that is carrying her through the dancing. She no longer feels it is her body doing the dancing but that this force inside of her is helping her dance. Before she realizes, she is dancing on her own as if the illness had never taken hold of her body.
She continues to dance not just that one day when she was ill, but for years to come and from then on. She does this not just out of respect to her Creator for giving her grandfather the knowledge that would heal her but also to honor her people and community and to remember that she was once healed. Now her future generations will continue to dance the Jingle Dress Dance as a way to honor the young girl who was healed and served as inspiration and encouragement to future generations.
The Native American storyteller tells us that the intricate dress the young girl wore was elaborated with more than 200 jingles in her dress. The dress the Jingle Dress dancer is wearing in these pictures have about 365 jingles made out of rolled up snuff can lids sewed close together on the dress which is what makes that delightful “jingle” sound. Some dresses can have between 400 and 700 jingles sewed on the dress!
The dance is designed to incorporate the sound of the jingles by allowing them to move or jingle or make them “happy.” The steps are controlled and the dancer strives to make zigzag patterns to reflect the zigzagging involved in the journey of life.
I never get tired of watching this dance, it reminds me that once there was an ill girl who in spite of her illness persisted and trusted her Creator. But she didn’t do it alone for her community, family, and her Creator helped her recuperate and supported her until she could dance on her own.
 Northern Plains Dance. (1992). In C. Heth (Ed.), Native America Dance: Ceremonies and Social Traditions (p. 140). Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing.
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