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A dancer in Native American regalia on an ornate marble floor with a group of hoops merged to form a sphere.
Nakotah LaRance performs in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress on May 18, 2016. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

Homegrown Plus: Nakotah LaRance, 1989-2020

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Normally, the Homegrown Plus series is a way to bring together the videos of Homegrown concerts with other information about the artists, including oral history interviews.  This time, however, we have a more solemn duty: to celebrate the life and legacy of Nakotah LaRance, an outstanding Native American hoop dancer from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, New Mexico, who performed in the 2016 Homegrown Concert Series.  Nakotah passed away in a tragic accident, falling from a bridge in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, on Sunday. He was only 30 years old.

A dancer in Native American regalia on stage.
Nakotah LaRance performs in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress on May 18, 2016. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Nakotah’s visit to the Library of Congress four years ago is one we will never forget. In addition to his performance on the stage of the Coolidge Auditorium, he danced for a special private event. The year 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of the American Folklife Center, and we held a celebration on May 18 in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, attended by senior Library staff, the AFC board of Trustees, collection donors and other invited guests, and the staff of AFC. At this special event, Nakotah performed on the marble floor of the Great Hall. We will be forever grateful to Nakotah for his contribution to our 40th anniversary celebration.

Although only in his mid-twenties when he appeared here, Nakotah LaRance had been dancing for over 20 years. At the age of 4, he began performing in a style called fancy dancing, an inter-tribal dance popular at powwows. During his travels to powwows, he met a world champion hoop dancer from his tribe, Derrick Davis. Davis mentored Nakotah, making his first set of hoops and teaching him the basics of hoop dancing, in which dancers use hoops and choreography to symbolize the seasons, the directions, the cosmos, animals, the history of humankind, and other concepts shared by many tribes.

As Nakotah’s connection to hoop dancing deepened, his father Steve LaRance began taking him to the annual World Championship of Hoop Dance, which is sponsored by the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. During his competitions at this event through the years, Nakotah garnered 3 youth division championship titles and 3 teenage division championship titles.

In 2004 Nakotah was invited to perform on NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno as “The Most Interesting Person in Arizona.” This gave him national exposure. He followed that by competing on PAX network’s America’s Most Talented Kids, which he won with the highest score in the history of the show. This led to opportunities for acting in TV and film, including Steven Spielberg’s Into the West miniseries, for which he won a best new actor award. He has also appeared in HBO’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and AMC’s Longmire.

A dancer in street clothes, a leather jacket, and sunglasses performs with hoops on a stage.
Three views of Nakotah LaRance performing his hip-hop hoop dance routine in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress on May 18, 2016. Photos by Stephen Winick.

In 2009 Nakotah was hired as principal dancer in the Cirque Du Soleil show Totem. He performed hoop dance as part of the theme of the show: the evolution of humankind. Nakotah traveled the world performing for Cirque Du Soleil for 3 years, and was subsequently called upon by them for special events, including as the principal dancer for the 2015 opening ceremonies of the Pan American Games held in Toronto, Canada.

A dancer in Native regalia on stage holds a globe made of thin hoops over his head with one hand.
Nakotah LaRance performs in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress on May 18, 2016. Photo by Stephen Winick.

After his time with Cirque du Soleil, Nakotah returned to New Mexico. He continued to perform traditional hoop dance, and competed again in the World Championship of Hoop Dance at the Heard Museum, winning the adult division championship title for both 2015 and 2016. At the same time, he took dance in new directions, pioneering the fusion of hoop dance with hip-hop, a concept he debuted at the 2014 Santa Fe Indian Market. Nakotah performs a memorable hip-hop hoop dance routine in his 2016 concert at the Library, which you can see in the video below.

In the last 5 years, Nakotah also took up the role as the master instructor for the Pueblo of Pojoaque Youth Hoop Dancers. In the first year of teaching, Nakotah led his young dancers on a European hoop dance tour and performed with them in France, Italy, and Switzerland. He has since made occasional tours to other countries, as far away as Japan, while remaining based in New Mexico.

When he visited us at the Library of Congress, Nakotah brought several family members along, including his father Steve LaRance, a talented artist, musician, and singer, and a tribal elder with deep knowledge of his community’s history.  Steve acted as the principal narrator, interpreter, and musician for Nakotah’s Coolidge Auditorium performance, and also performed a moving invocation to open Nakotah’s private performance in the Great Hall. Also with Nakotah were his niece, Shade Phea Young, and cousin, Quotsvenma Denipah-Cook. You can see all of them performing in the video below.

The American Folklife Center sends condolences to Steve, to Nakotah’s whole family, and to the extended community of hoop dancers in which Nakotah was a revered member and teacher. We should mention that Nakotah’s 2016 performance was dedicated to another young hoop dancer who had recently passed away from injuries sustained in an accident, Valentino Tzigiwhaeno Rivera. It’s appropriate to remember Tino’s name in association with that of his teacher, Nakotah LaRance.

Nakotah’s family sent the following message to his supporters via the Fans of Nakotah LaRance Facebook page:

Many friends and family have been reaching out on how to show your support for Nakotah and his loved ones. At this time we are asking for prayers for Nakotah and for our family. Kind words and honoring Nakotah in your own home, encourage your children to dance, watch videos of Nakotah dancing, listen to music or whatever you think would make him smile.

In that spirit, please honor and remember Nakotah by watching his Homegrown performance in the video player below.


Comments (5)

  1. I was lucky enough to be in attendance during Nakotah’s 2016 performance at the Library. It was truly stunning, awe-inspiring, and uplifting. I am heartbroken to read about this tragic ending to his life. He has left a legacy that future generations will surely benefit from. May he be at peace.

  2. I went to college with Nakotah’s aunt, Sherry. I knew his family since 1991. He was a young kid and his parents were famous artists at the Heard Museum. Coming from such a talented family, it was no surprise that his cousin, Sherry’s daughter, got into Hoop Dancing, and so did Nakotah. Nakotah was so young and so talented. He passed on all that he learned to inspire kids on the reservation. He will be remembered. He is dancing in Heaven now. See you on the other side!

  3. nice article

  4. When I saw him dance in Toronto, Ontario, I was stunned by his artistry and spirit. It was heart-breaking to hear of his untimely death, and my heart goes out to those who knew him and those who will now never meet him. His Nation lost a bright star. My deepest, deepest condolences.

  5. I too am heartbroken to learn of this tragedy. I saw him dance at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico just last January, and his performance, accompanied by his father’s singing and drumming, took my breath away and left me feeling changed. My deepest condolences to his family and all the kids and others he inspired. I’m so glad that at least videos and personal memories of him will survive to continue giving heart and motive to all who see and remember.

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