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Thunderbird American Indian Dancers Hold 38th Annual Dance Concert

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It's the 50th anniversary of the founding of Thunderbird American Indian Dancers and the troupe will hold its 38th annual Dance Concert and Pow Wow at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, from January 25 to February 3, 2013. The troupe's appearances benefit college funds for needy Native American students. The company's Pow-Wows have been presented annually as a two-week event by TNC since 1976, with the box office donated to these funds. There will be dances, stories and traditional music from the Iroquois and Native Peoples of the Northwest Coast, the Southwest, the Plains, and the Arctic regions. Between 15 and 20 dancers will assemble for the event.

Highlights will include Storytelling by Matoka Eagle (Santo Domingo, Tewa), a Hoop Dance by Michael Taylor (Choctaw), a Caribou Dance (from the Inuit people of Alaska), a Buffalo Dance (from the Hopi people), a Grass Dance and Jingle Dress Dance (from the Northern Plains people), a Stomp Dance (from the Southeastern tribes), and a Shawl Dance (from the Oklahoma tribes). In the final section of the program, the audience will be invited to join in the Round Dance, a friendship dance.

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Carlos Ponce/Eagle Feather (Mayan) poses with child following 2011 Pow-Wow at Theater for the New City.
Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation

After matinees, the cast will remain in the theater to personally meet the children attending and be photographed with them. This component of the show was inspired by the troupe's school residencies. Says Louis Mofsie, the Thunderbirds' artistic director, "Educators try to supplement the kids' knowledge of Native Americans and to teach them about different cultures. But the emphasis is on how we used to live, in the past tense. The kids are never taught how to relate to us in the present. Now they can meet us, and be photographed with us, and it's present tense. It's more than just seeing us on stage." He adds, "Learning about different cultures is important to enlarging the kids' perspective, particularly in light of what's going on in the world. We're in trouble today because we don't understand different cultures."

A Pow-Wow is more than just a spectator event: it is a joyous reunion for native peoples nationwide and an opportunity for the non-Indian community to voyage into the philosophy and beauty of Native culture. Traditionally a gathering and sharing of events, Pow-Wows have come to include spectacular dance competitions, exhibitions, and enjoyment of traditional foods.

Pageantry is an important component of the event, and all participants are elaborately dressed. Most dances are performed in the traditional Circle, which represents a unity of peoples. There is a wealth of cultural information encoded in the movements of each dance. More than ten distinct tribes will be represented in the performance.

Throughout the performance, all elements are explained in depth through detailed introductions by the troupe's Director and Emcee Louis Mofsie (Hopi/Winnebago). An educator, Mofsie plays an important part in the show by his ability to present a comprehensive view of native culture. Native American craft items will be displayed in the TNC lobby.

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(L) Carlos Ponce/Eagle Feather (Mayan) and (R) Allan Browne (Delaware/Dutch) in 2011 Pow-Wow.
Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation

The Thunderbird American Indian Dancers are the oldest resident Native American dance company in New York. The troupe was founded in Brooklyn in 1963 by a group of ten Native American men and women, all New Yorkers, who were descended from Mohawk, Hopi, Winnebago and San Blas tribes. Prominent among the founders were Louis Mofsie and his sister, Josephine Mofsie (deceased), Rosemary Richmond (Mohawk), Muriel Miguel (Cuna/Rapahannock) and Jack Preston (Seneca, deceased). Some were in school at the time; all were "first generation," meaning that their parents had been born on reservations. They founded the troupe to keep alive the traditions, songs and dances they had learned from their parents, and added to their repertoire from other Native Americans living in New York and some who were passing through. Jack Preston taught the company its Iroquois dances, including the Robin Dance and Fish Dance. To these were added dances from the plains, including the Hopi Buffalo Dance, and newer dances including the Grass Dance and Jingle Dress Dance. The company was all-volunteer, a tradition that exists to today. Members range in professions from teachers to hospital patient advocates, tree surgeons and computer engineers. Now Louis Mofsie says, "To be going for 50 years is just amazing to me, and to be able to do the work we do."

The troupe made a home in the old McBurney YMCA on 23rd Street and Seventh Ave. Within three or four years, they were traveling throughout the continental U.S., expanding and sharing their repertoire and gleaning new dances on the reservations. (A number of Thunderbird members are winners of Fancy Dance contests held on reservations, where the standard of competition is unmistakably high.)

The Thunderbird-TNC collaboration began in 1975, when Crystal Field directed a play called "The Only Good Indian." For research, Ms. Field lived on a Hopi reservation for three weeks. In preparation for the project, she met Louis Mofsie, and they made plans for a Pow Wow to celebrate the Winter Solstice. The event has continued annually to this day.

The Thunderbird American Indian Dancers Scholarship Fund receives its sole support from events like this concert (it receives no government or corporate contributions), and has bestowed over 350 scholarships to-date.

This year, Time Out wrote, "Here's your cheat sheet when it comes to Native American culture: Johnny Depp as Tonto is, ahem, less than authentic; but Theater for the New City's 38th annual event is the real deal. The two-hour performance by the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers is a whirlwind tour across North America that includes a caribou dance from the Inuit, a buffalo dance from the Hopi and a stomp dance originating in the Southeast. The pageantry is all explained with stories and introductions by MC Louis Mofsie, and audiences can share the joy of the powwow during the friendship-themed Round Dance."

Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' 38th Annual Dance Concert and Pow Wow will be presented by Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (at Tenth Street), January 25 to February 3, 2013,
Fridays at 8:00 pm; Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm.

Tickets are $10 general admission to all evening shows, whose running time is 2 hours. MATINEES ARE KIDS' DAYS: At all matinee performances, children under twelve accompanied by a ticket-bearing adult are admitted for $1.00 (adults $10). Running time is 1 hr. 30 min.

Tickets are available at the box office/audience info: (212) 254-1109 or online at www.theaterforthenewcity.net.

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