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Standing on ceremony
Lakota Sioux Dance Theatre channels Native American culture
The traditional dances are choreographed for the stage.
The traditional dances are choreographed for the stage.

Thanks to European pathogens and four centuries of shameful white man's policies, other "minorities" in this land we call the United States are profoundly more visible than the folks who got here first. Casinos are as close as most of us ever get to American Indian culture, but here's an eye-opening opportunity - Lakota Sioux Dance Theatre brings its acclaimed "Cokata Upo! Come to the Center" to Overture's Capitol Theater on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m.

You owe it to yourself to go. Except for Pilgrims and pioneers, most Euro-Americans had never seen Native American dances before Buffalo Bill Cody included a Lakota Sioux ghost dance in his Wild West show at Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition. Over the next 75 years indigenous Americans suffered religious repression and lost most of their lands. While they struggled to preserve their own culture, their names, symbols and styles were hijacked by sports teams, Boy Scouts and the fashion industry.

In the late 1970s, on the heels of the Red Power Movement, powwows became fertile grounds for cultural resurgence. At the same time, Henry Smith, founder and artistic director of Philadelphia-based Solaris Dance Theatre, went to teach on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota, on a Sears Roebuck grant for emerging artists.

"It was the first time I was exposed to native dance," Smith says. "I met some champion dancers, and the tribal chiefs liked the idea of a project based on positive communication between Native Americans and the broader public."

That's how Smith came to be artistic director of Lakota Sioux Dance Theatre, which has brought Native American dance to the world ever since. "The dancers in the company are highly acclaimed professionals who compete in powwows," Smith says. "That's how they make their living, and they're cultural leaders in their communities."

A corps of 14 dancer/singer/drummers comes together for tours. The troupe performed in Times Square for the millennium, at the 2004 Olympics in Greece, at Kennedy Center and the Hollywood Bowl. Every other year there's a New York season. This year's tour includes the U.S., France, Italy and Turkey.

"Cokata Upo!" is no Wild West pageant. It's a vibrant, contemporary show. Its 14 traditional dances are choreographed for stage and enhanced with narrative to let the public in on the significance of the steps, colors and brilliant regalia - "the real thing, handed down through families," Smith says.

"The feeling of this show is ceremonial, though it's not a ceremony. It's a celebration of Indian-ness. It energizes the audience. The drum's like a heartbeat - it takes people to another stage of awareness."

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