Stephanie Antone has been dancing in powwows all over the world since she was 18 years old, travelling as far as New Zealand to participate in traditional and competitive powwows.
Antone is a Métis-Cree woman living at the Settlement of the Oneida Nation of Thames near London, Ont. When the Nistawoyou Association Friendship Centre (NAFC) needed an instructor for virtual powwow programs, they asked Antone because of her family ties to the region and her vast knowledge of powwow dances.
“It means a lot to me to be connected to my family, to be connected to our people and to be connected to the land virtually even though I’m not there,” said Antone.
With more than 20 years of dancing in powwows under her belt, Antone has become a champion of women’s fancy dance, a style of Indigenous dance with a steady drum beat. Women’s fancy dancers usually dance with a colourful shawl decorated with elaborate embroidery and ribbon work. Antone is also a jingle-dress dancer, a dance that gets its name from the rows of metal cones attached to the dancer’s dress.
Through the virtual sessions with the NAFC, Antone gives participants a basic understanding of what a powwow is and the different dances found at a gathering. She defines a powwow as a gathering to celebrate life through song and dance.
“Every dancer teaches powwow a little bit differently, so I’ve just been making it my own,” said Antone. “I have some really good friends that I’ve instructed alongside and I’ve learned from them as well.”
The virtual powwows go live once a week for about an hour with 10 to 15 people tuning in. After a land acknowledgment and introductory chat, Antone teaches participants some new steps. The group dances to two songs and then dances to a slower song to cool down.
Antone closes each session with a question-and-answer period. Many people have asked about the fancy dance regalia she wears during the virtual powwow.
“I try to make it fun and engaging as much as possible,” said Antone. “Everyone has different experience and comfort levels so it’s nothing too strenuous.”
Keeping up with powwow dancing, even online, has been important for Antone’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Staying physically active with dancing also keeps her looking forward to when people can gather in person again.
Aside from the virtual powwows with the NAFC, Antone has connected to a virtual community of powwow dancers who gather online to dance together. Through a Facebook page called Social Distance Powwow, more than 236,000 people have connected to hold virtual powwows.
“Indigenous people are resilient and we’ve fought to survive in the past. They had to go underground when laws made it illegal for our people to practice our culture,” she said. “We’ve used the virtual world to stay connected and stay resilient to keep our powwows alive.”