Indian Dance

DURATION: 60 minutes (2 sessions)



Music, stories, and dance were an important part of Indian ceremonial and religious life. Dances contained many spiritual symbols from bodily decorations to body paint. Indians danced to celebrate the seasons, the harvest, a victory in war, to have fun, or to get ready to go to war. In this lesson, your students try some of the simpler dances.

Guiding Questions: 

  • How did Native Americans use dancing?


Students will 
  1. Examine paintings and accounts of Native Americans dances to infer the importance of dancing in their culture.
  2. Reenact the Cherokee Ball Play Dance and Stomp Dance.

Assessment ideas:

  • Have students demonstrate the Stomp Dance or the Ball Play Dance to another class.
  • Have students list three different ways Native Americans probably used dancing. (preparing for battle or sporting events, celebration, religious ceremonies, entertainment, etc.)

Advance Preparation:

  • Arrange a way to play the two recordings through a computer
  • If possible, borrow simple drums and “shaker” instruments.
  • Decide whether to project the images or to print them out ahead of time for class use.


Session One:
  1. Ask students to describe dance performances they have watched, attended, or participated in. (ballet, Dancing with the Stars, ball-room dancing, etc.)
  3. Explain that dancing was an important part of the lives of Indians.
  5. Ask students to close their eyes and listen to a song used by the Cherokee Indians in a dance called “Stomp Dance” from the TN4ME website.
  7. Ask students to identify what musical instruments were used. (drums and rattles)
  9. Ask students to describe the singing. (Lots of repetition. “Back and forth” singing involving a leader and the rest of the group. No “harmony”.)
  11. Have students describe how the Indian music made them feel. (Students may notice that the music “sounds sad”. This is just because it uses minor keys. The Indians did not interpret it as being sad.)
  13. Explain that Native Americans often wore “rattles” around their arms or legs when dancing.  They made their rattles out of gourds or turtle shells, but later used metal bells they got from English traders.
  15. If you have them, pass out chenille stems (or string) and bells and have students string the bells on a chenille stem and bend it around one ankle.
  17. Demonstrate the way to “stomp” –  Slide foot to right, then stomp with left foot. “Slide – Stomp – Slide – Stomp” etc.
  19. Designate a leader.
  21. Play the song again, having students slowly “follow the leader” doing the slide—stomp motion around the room.
Session Two:
  1. Have students brainstorm reasons Indians might have done such dancing. (celebration, preparing for battle or sports contests, religious ceremonies, entertainment)
  2. Project or hand out copies of the Ball Play Dance painting.
  3. Have a student read James Mooney’s description of the dance. Point out that while Mooney watched this dance in 1890, it is still probably very similar to what was done earlier. Discuss the parts of the painting that match the description. [The men are dancing in a circle, while the women are dancing separately. The description has seven women dancing to represent the seven Cherokee tribes. In the painting, there are more than seven women dancing, but the painting is of Choctaw Indians dancing, so they would not represent the Cherokee tribes.] Ask the students to look for the drummer. [He is in the far left with the drum held over his head.]
  4. Have students attempt to follow Mooney’s description to reenact the Ball Play Dance. Play this version of a Cherokee drum song (which doesn’t have a sound of a rattle, but we couldn’t find a Ball Play Dance music) as they dance.
This text will be replaced
(“The men dance in a circle around the fire, chanting responses to the sound of a rattle carried by another performer, who circles around on the outside, while the women stand in line a few feet away and dance to and fro, now advancing a few steps toward the men, then wheeling and dancing away from them, but all the while keeping time to the sound of the drum and chanting the refrain to the ball songs sung by the drummer, who is seated on the ground on the side farthest from the fire.”)
  1. Pass out Hariot’s 1590 description, the Choctaw eagle dance painting, Secoton Village painting, and the Cherokee Ball Dance lyrics.
  2. Dancing was important long before European contact. Discuss what the paintings and Hariot’s description tell us about the importance of dancing in Native American culture.
  3. Hariot’s description says that at certain times of the year, neighbors would come in for the feast and the men would dress in special costumes. In the drawing, the participants seem to be dressed in vegetation, perhaps signifying the harvest. Be sure and point out that these are just guesses on our part—maybe they liked to use leaves to make their costumes more unique. 
  4. Secotan had a special area used for dancing. Notice the women spreading out food in the middle of the village. This seems to indicate that the dance was to be accompanied by a feast. The dancers have decorations in their hair also indicating a special ceremony.
  5. The dancers in the Eagle Dance wore feathers. It only seems to be men participating; there are children to the far right watching. You can have the children watch this Eagle Dance on youtubeRemember, youtube videos can be removed, so check to see if it is still there.  Why was it the Eagle Dance? We don’t know for sure. The Paiute Indians do the dance to honor the eagle as they do for many wild animals they admire.
  6. Have the students read the Ball Dance lyrics. What is the song about? [The singer thinks he will win the competition which apparently awards a horse. He then describes how proud he will be riding his horse.]


  • Have students research other Native American traditional dances.
  • Order Native American music and play it for your students. Be sure you get traditional music.  Print the music sheet for "First Song" under Materials.  John Mooney had John Phillip Sousa score this song which Mooney heard during the Cherokee Ball Play dance he described.
  • Have students research Mooney and his descriptions. The Cherokee Ball Play (Mooney 1890)  Article on Mooney - 


Grade 8 Tennessee Social Studies Standards:
  • Contrast the characteristics of major native civilizations of the Americas.
  • Use … media, and technology sources to acquire information.
  • Discover resources available from museums … to acquire information.


            National History Standards:
Era 2: Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)
Standard 1D
The student understands the differences and similarities among Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans who converged in the western hemisphere after 1492. 
Grade Level
Therefore, the student is able to

Trace routes taken by early explorers ... [Draw upon data in historical maps]
Compare dominant ideas and values including religious belief and practice, gender roles, and attitudes toward nature. [Compare and contrast the influence of ideas]