Last September, Konwatharani Jacobs took her first hesitant steps onto the powwow floor. Her then five-year-old daughter Iako’tarakehte, her reason for dancing, cheekily let go of her hand at the last minute and whispered “I always dance! I want to see you dance now!” leaving Jacobs on the floor solo.
But as the music started, and Jacobs looked down at her hand-stitched dress made to match her daughter’s, she suddenly realised she had nothing to be nervous about. She was right where she was always meant to be.
“Everybody that knows me knows that I don’t dance. I don’t dance in clubs, I don’t dance in general. I’m not coordinated like that,” Jacobs laughed. “But I think I got a release. I feel like I’m free. It made me feel like I can do what I want. It’s freedom.”
Having built her confidence up over the past months, Jacobs will be dancing at the Echoes of a Proud Nation Pow-Wow for the first time this weekend – something she’s wanted to do since she was young. Though she and her sister always wanted to dance –
their mother bought them feather fans for them to start with as children – they never did, choosing instead to do competitive sports. Jacobs said that while she loved sport growing up, she regrets not learning to dance.
With Iako’tarakehte also playing sports, Jacobs knows one day her daughter may have to choose between dance and athletics – but Jacobs said that she feels her daughter has more of a chance of continuing both than she did as a child.
“Right now at her age, she’s able to play as many sports as she wants and still be able to do this,” Jacobs explained. “But even if there’s a point where she’s going to have to decide, there’s always the fallback that I didn’t have when I was a kid, which is having a troupe to dance with outside of powwows.”
Jacobs and Iako’tarakehte, now six, have been dancing with the Deer Family Dancers, a troupe led by community member Ray Deer after Jacobs was helped into the dancing world by her friend Singing Wind Deer, Ray’s daughter, also part of the group.
Now, Iako’tarakehte and Jacobs often join the family for school events, workshops, and other engagements, something that Jacobs said she and her daughter have enjoyed more than expected.
“I just got pulled into their family and they were cheering me on, it really helped me,” Jacobs explained. “The best part is that dancing with a troupe is at random times where we can pick out the days we go. It’s not specific days like the powwow where we had missed it because of hockey or softball tournaments. This is less restricted, we have more freedom to do it with the troupe.”
Jacobs works at the Kahnawake Fire Brigade (KFB), where she often talks about being a new dancer with her co-worker, Tanner Phillips. Phillips participated in the Echoes of a Proud Nation Pow-Wow last year, dancing in the men’s traditional category for the first time ever. He had never felt comfortable participating until his transition in 2019, and he explained that dancing has been important for him to heal and to express his true identity.
“For me, it’s part of my healing journey, but it’s also a part of coming into myself as a trans person. If it’s something you feel like you have to do, or you want to do, you’ve got to just go out and do it,” Phillips said. “I’m there for myself, to dance, and to heal, and to figure out where I fit in in the dancing community.”
For Phillips, it was initially intimidating to stand up when the men’s traditional category was called. But like Jacobs, his nerves melted away once he was dancing.
“It does help to know that there’s been a lot more visibility of especially trans people in the community; it kind of just helps me feel that bit more comfortable,” he said. “But ultimately, I just end up not focusing on what other people think. I’m glad that I have the support and the ability to dance and be accepted. It’s helped me heal in so many different ways, and even in some ways I didn’t realize I needed healing.”
Last year, Phillips participated in the grand entry but did not officially compete, but this year, he wants to make it official.
“It’s my intention to compete,” he said. “But it’s intimidating, because many of the other dancers, especially in the adult male category, have been dancing for 20 years. So it’s intimidating, but I also really like dancing with them because they have so much experience, and I can watch them dance and be inspired by bits and pieces from what I see them doing.”
Phillips and Jacobs both said that since they started dancing, they’ve felt an immense release. Jacobs recommends that anyone new to the dancing world try to find someone to dance with. She said the thought of dancing your first dance is scary, but it’s different once you’re up there.
“It’s never too late, and it’s the best release ever. The anxiety and worry about being judged about your dancing, it doesn’t matter. After you’ve done your first one, you forget about it,” she said. “It’s easier to start dancing when you have someone to do it with. For me, that’s my daughter. That’s what’s helped me.”
Jacobs also said that it’s entirely up to you what level of participation you want to commit to. While Phillips wants to commit to competing, Jacobs has found she prefers performing at workshops and school visits.
“But even if you don’t want to compete, it’s about getting out there and having your own freedom of expression.”
Kahnawake’s 31st Echoes of a Proud Nation Pow-Wow will take place this weekend, July 8-9, with gates opening at 9 a.m. on both days.
This article was originally published in print on Friday, July 6, in issue 32.27 of The Eastern Door.