Creating an Experience: Sewam American Indian Dance

by Eddie Madril

I have come to know myself. I want to have good vibes and energy. I once heard attitudes are contagious. Well, then I want the audience to have good vibes and energy.

Through Sewam American Indian Dance I primarily work with school age children. I also work within the Native community, university campuses, and a wide variety of other arenas. The purpose of sharing what I do, the way I do, is to provide a unique and educational experience for the people who are in attendance of a performance. As a teacher, an actor, a dancer, and a storyteller the intent is to engage the children on different levels. Why create simply a “show”, when the possibility to create an experience for children is available – that includes an authentic education. There can be a fine line between the selling of culture and educating through creative cultural ways. Perhaps with a sincere intention toward educating people and breaking down boundaries, we can come out not having sold our culture, but having expanded others.

Color image of man dancing in full white and colored regalia
Dancer Eddie Madril in full regalia dancing for SF Ethnic Dance Festival Photo by Eva Kolenko

Keep the kids involved and interested

Grab the attention of children and hold it…through the use of high energy, dance, and storytelling – for the entirety of the presentation. I believe I use these three different skills to allow children to engage not only their minds but also their bodies. One goal of my teaching is keeping the energy high, both for myself and the children. Children instantly become more intent on what I’m doing and what I am saying. Throughout my presentation I continue to have the children participate both within the body and mentally.  It is possible to make a presentation a feast for the eyes and ears of the children or any audience.  As an example, when I dance, at points I’ll often get as close as I can to the kids. I want them to “feel” the experience of what I’m sharing. As I watch professional performers/educators, I notice that they never choose to, what I call, give a “B” performance. It’s always the best, every time, for everyone. Whether it’s for 10 kids or 10,000 attendees. After hearing a friend say the following years ago, I decided to make it a commitment: “as he has continued through the performance his energy never fails, he is animated and active the whole time.” Keep the kids involved and interested.

At times I strategically break up speaking with dancing or a song. This seems to work perfectly to engage children who can begin to lose focus when given too much verbal information. Keeping the format free allows the presentation to be organic and fluid. This is what makes it sharing – the presentation is with the audience and not for or at the audience. If you know what your main objectives or goals are, then the rest should be what takes place according to what is or isn’t working with that particular audience or environment. I don’t want people to think all tribes/Nations are the same – I can’t suppose every school is the same, or all third graders, or all university students.

It’s important to notice the teachers are also in the room. They can and should be invited to get caught up in watching the dance, as well as the lecture. The work I do, we do, isn’t to perform for kids at a school. It should be to engage, change, inform, inspire, and empower. So much of what we do as teaching artists should be instilled in the teaching environment. Otherwise, the burden of the education we provide rests on the shoulders of the students only. I believe an education is a collaboration through communication between the teachers and the students. Very good and well-prepared study guides are imperative. This study guide shouldn’t be provided for the teachers to give to students, but rather an opportunity for teachers to have at theirs hands the tools to teach what you are sharing.  

I use traditional stories to both entertain and educate audiences. I’ll often transition from dancing and adjusting for the next dance to tell a Native story. While the story is being told I’ll remain as engaging as when I was dancing. Using exaggerated voices and movements I may also get down on the ground at the kid’s level making sure they stay fully engaged. Through storytelling I can impart fun and exciting tales with important life lessons.

Black and White image of man dancing, wearing feathered headdress and carrying feather fan
Eddie Madril of Sewam American Indian Dance Photo by Leigh Cavalier

Education on Native communities

One of the best things I can do for this age group is to provide information on Native peoples in a very accessible way. I’ll focus on a few different things that children can easily grasp. One statistic takes Native peoples from being one solitary group to a collective of over 567 tribes/Nations. Throughout the presentation I will sporadically ask who can tell me how many tribes there are? I’ll also talk about the different forms of housing Native peoples had and have in these distinct [over] 567 tribes. By talking about housing, I can be able to discuss both geographical distinctions between Native peoples as well as cultural differences. 

Importance of education and the need to respect it

One exercise I do in the presentation is Native sign language piece. 

The words are:

Education is not the enemy, a weak or broken heart is the enemy, stay strong in your love to the creator and you will be strong forever.” 

Using this catch phrase that engages both the mind and the body I am able to talk to the kids about the importance of education and respect for those who provide it. The “weak or broken heart” refers to the attitude of a person, and how that can hinder the intelligence of a person as they grow. The last line refers to appreciating all that is around you that is beauty. It’s also the recognition of those things around us that have positive attributes – and with that, I will never try and convince someone that life can be easy, but with a positive attitude and perspective (from the practice of knowledge building), life can be easier. 

Difference is everywhere and should be accepted not rejected. 

One of the main educational lessons is learning about difference; people are different, no one is the same and that is ok. I would like to promote inclusivity and equity in the children. I’ll start by using myself as an example pointing to my regalia. “Am I dressed weird? Or would you say it’s different? Or unique? Or interesting? Would you like to know more? An educated person always wants more information. Is that you?” When something or someone is different there is a need to stop and think for a moment to learn more. Issues and struggles around difference can often be helped through education. 

Color image close up of profile of man holding a colorful coup stick
Dancer Eddie Madril performing in New Zealand Photo courtesy of US Embassy New Zealand

Learning about other people is a key concept to equality and inclusivity. 

References to items I have or I am wearing, I can point out that here is an instance of difference and tell the students to be respectful, even if to them it might look funny or strange. Then I’ll give a context in which children can understand how this said difference is still relatable to something they might experience in their own lives. By linking education and difference we can set the children up to create and harbor more equitable feelings towards people of different cultural identity, ethnicity, and racial groups than themselves.