Hoop Dancer Tony Duncan

Written by Adam Kress Category: Spotlight Issue: April 2013

Hoop dancing incorporates speed and agility as dancers maneuver through one to more than 50 hoops while keeping time to a drumbeat. The dance is brought to life as competitors make designs with their hoops – and often twirl many at once. Scenes from nature, such as a soaring eagle, are often depicted in the hoop dance.

The dance originated from the Taos Pueblo people in New Mexico and has spread across the U.S. and Canada. The competition at the Heard Museum is held each February and is the largest in the world. Dancers from more than 20 American Indian tribes competed this year.

Duncan, who grew up on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, also plays the cane flute for the musical group Estun-Bah (“for the woman” in Apache). The group has produced four albums and performed twice for former first lady Laura Bush in Washington, D.C. Duncan says his musical goal is to attend the Grammys as an award nominee.

What’s it like to perform out there?
You have to find that balance between trying to be really quick but keeping that sense of smoothness and timing. You have to hit every beat in your dance along with the drumbeat. There are all sorts of hoop tricks – tossing them, twirling them, going between your legs – but you always have to keep the rhythm of the drum. 

How did you get to be so good?
I give 100 percent credit to my father (Ken Duncan, Sr.). He taught me everything. He put the first hoop in my hand and made all my hoops and outfits. He sung the songs for me as I danced growing up, coached me along, and oftentimes... came up with whole routines for me.

What can you do to make sure hoop dancing survives and thrives? 
That’s what the whole meaning of the hoop dance is about: the circle of life. Everything moves in cycles. Like how young children look up to the older ones and carry on the tradition. I’m starting to work with the Phoenix Indian Center teaching hoop dance workshops for all the native youth in the Valley. That’s one way I feel dance can live on, and the songs can live on through the dancing. It’s a very powerful dance that I believe will never die.

What’s the most important thing hoop dancing has taught you?
The hoop dance teaches you to have respect for everything in life – from the smallest ant to the largest mountain. Those hoops represent the different elements of life. I’ll make designs in my dance that look like an eagle or a butterfly. I’ll also make designs that represent a flower or a man. These are all elements of life that we’re supposed to be giving respect and honor to.

What else do you like to do?
I love playing basketball, running and spending time with my family. I have a little daughter who’s a year and a half old, and I’ve made her three small hoops. I’m teaching her some of the dancing, and she can keep the timing a little bit. Now we have another little one on the way, and as the family grows, the circle continues.