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The World Championship Hoop Dance Contest takes a step toward live play-by-play

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

For more than three decades, Natives from across the U.S. and Canada have flocked to the annual World Championship Hoop Dance Contest at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. This popular spectator sport, with deep ties to the Southwest, has been elevated to another level for audiences, both in the arena and back at home.

“Welcome the dancers, welcome the dancers,” said master of ceremonies Dennis Bowen Sr., a Seneca from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. “We have 121 hoop dancers!” 

It’s the most they’ve ever had across five divisions from tiny tots — under the age of 5 — to seniors — older than 40. And the youth category — ages 6 to 12 — had the highest turnout, comprising more than a third of all registrants. 

Performers are scored by a panel of five judges on a range of criteria: Precision, showmanship, creativity, timing & rhythm and speed. Contestants warp hoops, mostly made from plastic into shapes, like animals, and convey stories as they move to the music.

Hoops are also for healing, both for competitors and spectators, with more than 6,300 in attendance for this Southwest sporting staple over the weekend. 

“For the next two nights, you’re going to hear these songs in your dream,” added Bowen, who’s been traveling from New York to emcee this competition since 1992. “You’re going to wake up and smile.” 

Aside from shattering records, this weekend also marked another major milestone for this iconically Indigenous sport: Post-dance interviews. 

“Hello everybody, we’re back,” said Melody Lewis of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe. “We have our next guest with us. Can you give us a quick introduction?” 

“I’m from the Pueblo of Pojoaque, and I’m 21-years-old,” Josiah Enriquez answered. “And I’ve been dancing for 13 years.”

She asked, “Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our audience?”

“Be you and don’t be afraid to be Indigenous,” Enriquez responded.

They appeared on a livestream of the Gila River Broadcasting Corporation, or GRBC, during the final rounds of competition on Sunday.

Enriquez, who lives in New Mexico, later faced off against Talon Ree Duncan of Scottsdale for the world title in the adult division Their field had been whittled down to six finalists all vying for the championship following the second round.

Last year, Duncan lost the championship by a single point. This time around, he tied with Enriquez, both scoring 209 points. But a final dance on Sunday determined a winner.

“We had a tie-breaker today,” said Shawn Martinez. “What’s going on here? Yes!” 

This Navajo voice might be familiar to fans of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury. He’s the senior director of live presentation for both franchises at the Footprint Center.

And Lewis’ broadcast partner, at least for Sunday. 

“Thank you to the dancers for sharing their story,” said Lewis.

“Absolutely, it was definitely good to get to know the dancers,” Martinez agreed.“This was such a beautiful day.”

He told KJZZ News how “contestants were very excited, trying to watch their interviews.” When asked whether he’d consider returning next year to meet more hoop dancers in this role once more, Martinez already admitted that he would “100 percent.” 

“When you have a seat at the table, you got to take advantage of that and help us tell our story. Not just for the tribes here, but tribes across the country,” added Martinez. “Bring them on board, like the NCAA Final Four. I’m gonna have the hoop dancers out for that too.” 

The idea to invite the pair of special guests came from Michael Webb, a Chickasaw and Chicano new-hire as the Heard Museum’s public engagement manager. 

“I’m not very good with dates at all, you know, birthdays,” said Webb, “but for some reason, hoop in February, is burned into my brain.” 

He began coming to the championships before he turned 10. Now, he’s in charge of organizing that same contest. 

Piloting post-dance interviews, Webb said, is a huge step toward hopefully one day incorporating live play-by-play commentary “as if this were the World Series or the NBA Finals,” but for hoop dancing. 

“In the following years, we’re looking to expand that to truly be full commentating where a representative can get into what formations the dancers are providing,” Webb explained. “A little bit of that insight about the competitors, the history of hoop, some of these fun facts that maybe folks wouldn’t necessarily know.” 

Even signature moves.

“It’s something they invented,” Webb elaborated. “Or ‘Oh, that’s a nod to Tony Duncan, that’s a nod to the Sinquah family. That’s a nod to even Tony Whitecloud.’” 

Whitecloud is from the Jemez Pueblo, in New Mexico, and turned hoop dancing into a spectator sport during the 1930s. His touring performances nationwide popularized it so much. Today, he’s remembered as the founder of modern hoop dance. 

His popularity helped pave the way for world championships. 

The 1991 New Mexico State Fair, in Albuquerque, was the venue for the inaugural World Championship Hoop Dance Contest decades later. The next year, that competition moved to the Heard Museum in Phoenix and has stayed there ever since. 

Now, this tradition is evolving for the future, thanks in part to a local tribally-owned television station.

“It was the beginning of us as a brand,” said Clarice Ciago-Jones, executive director at GRBC.

Being the first low power television station operating in Indian Country already brought them attention. But once the Heard Museum approached her team and they began exclusively producing the competition back in 2019, GRBC became even more noticed. 

That was also their first-ever broadcast of live programming, too.

Despite that, Ciago-Jones said, “It went pretty flawlessly. To this day, we call it the most perfect production we’ve ever done.” 

Since then, their 30-hour plus live production has slightly changed because of Sunday’s post-dance interviews. But she believes the possibility of play-by-play coverage can be a notable difference for fans around the globe.

“That takes a little bit [of] extra communication. It’s not too much,” said Ciago-Jones. “It’s gonna provide more context. And I think, probably just make it more interesting for the viewers.” 

“Stay tuned, because they’re gonna crown the champions here real quick,” said Martinez, standing underneath the GRBC tent overlooking the arena. “You’ll see that coming up.” 

Back at the announcing table near the round arena, Bowen read off the final results for the youth, teen, senior and adult divisions late Sunday evening. “My goodness, we’ve come to two dancers that did their very best in the tie-breaker… Our new world champion… Josiah Enriquez.” 

In the tie-breaker round, Enriquez scored ten points higher than Duncan, beating him 209 to 199.

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.