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Lay celebrates life, honors culture through dance

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Submitted Photo James Lay

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James Lay of Roswell is a member of the Cherokee Nation. Approximately 30 years ago, he became interested in learning the various ceremonial dances that represented his history. He wished to perform these dances for the public, and to pass along important aspects of his culture to other generations.

“I think the biggest thing that brings me joy in regards to performing these dances is the opportunity I receive to visit with a lot of people while celebrating my culture,” Lay remarked. “I get to greet others from different states and countries and learn more about their traditions.”

His main style is referred to as the Straight Dance (A.K.A. Southern Straight Dance/Southern Traditional). This particular style of Native American powwow dancing recounts the story of hunting or war parties searching for the tracks of an animal or enemy. As Lay describes: “I’ll be dancing up straight and when the song changes, the drumbeat is altered and I dance lower to the ground, as if tracking that proverbial enemy or beast.”

But that is just one dance he has mastered and been able to teach to others. In fact, it was while dancing in Tahlequah, Oklahoma where he met his future wife, Kathy, at a powwow. “She was a teacher at the time and is now executive director of MainStreet Roswell.” With one daughter and two grandsons, James is very interested in passing along these dances to his family.

Having been asked to be “Head Man” at a large number of powwows across the country, James has found himself in that role in ceremonies held in many states. For those who may not know, a Head Man and a Head Lady are chosen for these events, and it’s an honor for the ones selected. Head dancers lead the other dancers in the grand entry or parade that opens a powwow. When asked how one would practice to achieve the talent needed to be chosen, James states: “Practice is not something you do, it literally … comes to you.”

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When it comes to the vibrant songs and dances, it’s important to note that many date so far back, most don’t even know who originally made them.

That’s another “gift” of these nations — the ability to keep the past alive.

Although some dances are individualized to a specific clan, others like the Stomp Dance, which James also performs, are done by many nations. Performed at night, the Stomp Dance is a ceremony that contains both religious and social meaning. The term “stomp” refers to the “shuffle and stomp” movements of the dance. Dancers move in a counter-clockwise circle and the women wear long skirts and don turtle-shell shakers on their knees, one of the main components that produces the music.

When the singing begins, the participants will dance around a fire creating a circle, and the ladies will shuffle their knees in order to create the rattling noise of the shakers. As people join in, the circle grows in size, and each of the seven Cherokee clans will perform the dance.

James speaks about other traditional dances, from the Back-and-Forth to the Healing Dance that’s performed at night around a campfire, usually in late fall or winter. “It is said, while two tribes were at battle, one captured people and placed them in a cave. One night, dancers appeared inside the cave and healed them all of their injuries, so now this dance is performed — with ritual masks covering the dancers’ faces, and bodies covered in black designs — in order to represent this moment.”

This, as well as other ceremonial dances, rodeo activities, arts and crafts, a ceremonial parade, and a rare opportunity to witness the coming-of-age ceremony of Mescalero Apache maidens, can be enjoyed by visitors at the Mescalero Apache Tribal Ceremonial & Rodeo held at the Mescalero Apache reservation over the July 4th weekend every year. In addition, visitors can attend the Cherokee National Holiday held every Labor Day weekend in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, or Tribal Feast Days held in New Mexico throughout the year.

And when it comes to various contests, all different age groups are represented; even the “tiny tots” are awarded for their efforts. “The committee will act like they’re judging and then say they’re all winners and give each tiny tot two or three dollars each, which makes them very happy,” he said.

Another facet of James’ life as a ceremonial dancer is the costumes he wears. “Penny Singer, a member of the Navajo Nation in Albuquerque, does all the appliqué work on my wardrobe. Vest, leggings, each article bears the same design. And it’s your own individualized, unique design that is not worn by anyone else. There are different men’s styles she creates, from Men’s Southern Straight to Northern Traditional to Men’s Grass and Men’s Fancy.”

Not only has James won a slew of contests in regard to his dancing, he will also appear in a movie shot earlier this year: “Cowgirls and Indians” written by Roswellite Kate Davis. In the film, James dances in his full regalia that has helped him garner numerous awards.

The love of the dance is heard in his voice when James talks about the thrill he receives from performing for the elders. “Some of the elders have never learned to speak English, and it’s a joy to see the excitement on their faces when I get to dance for them and honor our culture. I have also been able to meet people all the way from Australia who visit our powwows and events; it’s like building a vast social network.”

Volunteers put all of these events together, and the time and energy it takes is astounding. But in the end, like James, each person is honored to spread the culture of the various nations while allowing the public to smile at the same time.

By Amy Lignor
Special to the Daily Record