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Category: Indigenous Music

The Haudenosaunee Tradition: Chris Thomas and His Smoke Dancers

Chris Thomas & His Smoke Dancers - all photos by J. Stoller

Chris Thomas & His Smoke Dancers – all photos by J. Stoller, except where noted

If you want to see what can happen when you let the Great Spirit move you, check out the The Smoke Dance of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Nation. This dance is characterized by lightning fast footwork and it’s considered one of the most popular and dynamic competition dances at Northeastern pow-wows. Chris Thomas, one of the current masters of the smoke dance and one of its most celebrated ambassadors, uses his performance to teach people about Haudenosaunee history and culture.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy (also known as “People of the Longhouse”) comprises Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk and Tuscarora nations of central and upstate New York. “Iroquois” was actually the name they were given by French Jesuits. Thomas is a member of the Onondaga Nation Beaver Clan.

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Haudenosaunee ceremonial dances have spiritual significance, and as such, they are reserved for members of the tribal community. However, social dances like the Rabbit and Old Moccasin dances can be performed in public, and they’re seen in competitions. The smoke dance is a newer form that was developed in the last century. It may have roots in the War Dance, though some day it mimics clearing out smoke from the longhouse.

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The way one learns Haudenosaunee dancing is by watching and then participating, building one’s own style within the framework of the traditional dance, its costume and singing. Thomas learned in this way, attending shows and pow-wows, where he eventually became a competitive dancer.

His stepfather Bill Crouse, of the Seneca tribe, introduced him to dance and taught him to sing. Many of the songs Thomas presents are in the Seneca language, which is closely related to Onondaga. He regularly performs with his performing troupe, made up of members of the Oneida, Onondaga and Seneca Nations, as he teaches the public about the rich culture and history of the Haudenosaunee.

Chris Thomas - photographer unknown

Chris Thomas – photographer unknown

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Yamini Kalluri & the Carnatic Ensemble Bring Kuchipudi Dance to Western Audiences

Yamini Kalluri - all photos by J. Stoller

Yamini Kalluri – all photos by J. Stoller

For a cultural tradition in a diaspora community to not only survive but thrive, there must be dedicated artists who can not only entertain, but inspire. Acclaimed Kuchipudi dancer Yamini Kalluri is an amazing ambassador for this highly complex and nuanced art form.

Based in New York City, Kalluri began a collaboration with the Carnatic Ensemble. This trio of gifted musicians are of Tamil heritage, while Kalluri is of Telugu ancestry. This inter-generational ensemble combines two regional areas of South Indian tradition to create a mesmerizing performance that delights audiences, captivates the imagination and celebrates their Indian heritage.

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Yamini Kalluri and the Carnatic Ensemble of vocalist Shaaranya Pillai, mridangam player Bala Skandan (leader of Indian percussion ensemble Akshara) and violin master Parthiv Mohan.

Kuchipudi dance comes from a village of that name in the state of Andhra Pradesh, on India’s Southeastern coast. As one of nine classical dance forms in India, Kuchipudi is based on ancient Hindu dance-dramas known as yakshagana. For 300 years, Kuchipudi was an ensemble dance form with male dancers. However, nearly 100 years ago, modern Kuchipudi was introduced as a solo dance tradition that featured female dancers.

Elements unique to Kuchipudi are an emphasis on dexterity and vigor, with the final act danced upon the rim of a brass plate. It is a dance form that is devoted to graceful, theatrical storytelling, in a vibrant traditional costume, with close interplay between the dancer and the singer. In the telling of these traditional epic dramas, through emotional clarity and delicate nuances, the tradition is made instantly accessible to a modern audience.


Yamini Kalluri performing with Chandra Rao (vocal), Sai Kolanka (violin) and Sreedharachary (mridangam)

At the tender age of 21, Kalluri is already established as a highly accomplished Kuchipudi performer, choreographer and teacher. Though born in the U.S., she grew up in Hyderabad, India, and began studying Kuchipadi dance at age seven. She proved to be especially skilled at the dance’s heightened use of abhinaya (expression), and when she was 12, she became a teacher herself. Kalluri has since performed in India, England and North America.

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