NORTHERN NEW MEXICO HAS never looked more beautiful. Storm clouds enhance the deep, rolling shadows of its iconic mountain landscape. It is late spring, but as I watch a group of kids perform a hoop dance, the weather feels more like the monsoon of a July afternoon. Although there is no electricity in the sky, the presence of rain reminds me of hoop dancing prodigy Valentino “Tzigiwhaeno” Rivera, whose Tewa name means Lightning Boy. He and his mentor, Nakotah LaRance, have both crossed into the spirit world.
Later, the youth group will tell me that they perform this healing dance under these heavy skies because of Valentino, Nakotah, and all their ancestors. Today, at the Lightning Boy Foundation’s headquarters, in Pojoaque Pueblo, their legacy is as alive as the piñon trees and the young dancers who fill the space.
Everywhere, children are dancing. Parents, siblings, relatives, and instructors watch, chat, and cheer on the young ones. A plate of cupcakes circulates in celebration of the youngest dancer’s birthday. Just four years old, he bounces through the sand and sky as easily as a bunny, hoops in hand. Other children glide around the dance circle, feet and hoops moving to a Fancy Dance song, as graceful as little deer.
Weekly rehearsals of the Lightning Boy Dance Group, whose mission is to connect young Indigenous people to their culture through hoop dancing, are held at the studio of Valentino’s father, George Rivera, a sculptor and former governor of Pojoaque Pueblo. Built atop a hill, the dance circle is flanked by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the east and the Jemez Mountains in the north. To the southwest, a huge statue of a warrior on horseback stands guard.
Among the rehearsal spectators are foundation co-chairs Felicia Rosacker-Rivera, Valentino’s mother; and Steve LaRance (Hopi/Assiniboine), Nakotah’s father; as well as master instructor ShanDien “Sonwai” LaRance (Hopi/Tewa), Nakotah’s sister. They helped create the foundation in 2017, after the passing of eight-year-old Valentino. In 2020, Nakotah joined Valentino in the spirit world at the age of 30. Today, the Lightning Boy Dance Group puts feet to dirt, grass, and pavement while spinning hoops in dazzling patterns, all in remembrance of these two beloved dancers.
The troupe provides kids with a small community within a larger one. “Within the school systems around here, there aren’t any sports or activities that are specific to Indigenous people,” ShanDien explains. “As Indigenous people, we are the foundation of New Mexico—the first people here—so it’s really important that we focus on Indigenous youth.” The Lightning Boy Hoop Dance Group teaches them a combination of discipline and creativity that keeps them grounded physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Nakotah’s student Josiah Enriquez (Pojoaque) has been dancing for a decade and now acts as an instructor. “I remember going to practice. All of us would be all over Nakotah, you know, because we loved him,” Enriquez says. “He would always say that we were his kids, and now, as an instructor, these are my kids, too. They teach me a lot about myself.” He says he dances for the people who can’t dance, for his ancestors, and for the healing of those around him. Part of his mission is to change the way the young ones view themselves. “We’re showing them that it’s not bad to be Indigenous, that we can be proud about it,” he says.
Francesca Maestas (Pojoaque/Diné/Cherokee) has been an instructor since 2017. She, too, was a student of Nakotah, who created a hoop dance summer program at the pueblo aimed at suicide prevention and encouraging kids to get active and creative. Her favorite part of being an instructor is watching the children fall in love with the art form. “It’s important to show them our traditions, since hoop dancing was lost for a long time,” she says. “We’re slowly bringing it back.”
ON AUGUST 5 AND 6, THE MUSEUM OF INDIAN ARTS & CULTURE, in Santa Fe, hosts the Second Annual Nakotah LaRance Youth Hoop Dance Championship. Open to youths age 26 and under, the competition continues Nakotah’s passion and work with Indigenous communities after he was taken too soon. A nine-time World Hoop Dance Champion, Nakotah brought new attention to the art form in New Mexico, where he and Valentino were dedicated to nurturing and empowering Indigenous youth.
The public competition includes Tiny Tot, Youth, Teenage, and Collegiate divisions. Last year, more than 700 people came to watch the inaugural competition, which included 42 dancers from New Mexico, Arizona, and states as far away as Michigan.
For audiences, the hoop dance is an ethereal experience. The hoop represents infinity in all of its forms and human beings’ connectivity to all life. When humans are in balance and rhythm, the world around them follows. The hoop dancers create inner harmony, causing a ripple effect that makes every performance an act of healing for everyone in attendance, and even for those who are not. Across Turtle Island, or North America, Indigenous people use hoop dancing in traditional healing ceremonies.
The Native hoop dancing tradition nearly disappeared in the early 20th century. But in the 1930s, Tony White Cloud (Jemez), who performed with five hoops made of bent willow wood, established modern hoop dancing in New Mexico. In 1991, the first World Hoop Dance Competition was held at the New Mexico State Fair. Although the dance almost faded into obscurity, it continues to gain in popularity, both within and outside of tribal communities, thanks to dancers like White Cloud, Nakotah, and Valentino. The Lightning Boy Dance Group stages free performances on the Santa Fe Plaza several times a year, where people from around the world can learn about the art form. The troupe also regularly enters competitions and is booked for cultural events, including this year’s Santa Fe Indian Market, August 19 and 20.
“I dance for people who are no longer here,” says Giovanni Benally (Diné), who has been with the foundation for eight years. Like the other dancers, he is dressed comfortably for rehearsal, in basketball shorts, sneakers, and a Def Leppard T-shirt. “I dance for Valentino’s and Nakotah’s spirits, and for Mother Earth as well, by making formations with the hoops that signify her features, like birds and plants.” He plans to continue dancing and to become a teacher, passing on the tradition to others while keeping the legacy of his friends alive.
Valentino, who was busting moves from the time he could stand, was just four when he first saw Nakotah dance. Nakotah, who spent three years performing with Cirque du Soleil, mixed hip-hop influences into the traditional hoop dancing style. Seeing a desire by their sons to learn and teach, in 2013 Steve and Felicia created the original Pueblo of Pojoaque Youth Hoop Dance Group, of which five-year-old Valentino was the youngest member. The group toured Europe, performed for the United Nations Human Rights Council, and received a scholarship from the U.S. Embassy.
“THE FOUNDATION MEANS A LOT TO ME, BECAUSE it was founded based on the request of our son, Valentino Tzigiwhaeno (Lightning Boy), to be remembered as a dancer,” says Felicia. “We had 13 dancers the first time we went to the World Hoop Dance Championship. We opened it up to all tribal youth that were able to make practices and commit themselves to the program. That was different from the Pueblo of Pojoaque Youth Hoop Dance Group that Valentino was in, because that was only open to the pueblo. It meant a lot to me because his friends were from all over.”
In 2015, when Valentino suffered serious injuries from a car accident, leaders from across Indian Country came to offer their love and support. He did not recover, and his spirit transitioned to the next world. Honoring Valentino’s request to be remembered as a dancer, teacher, student, and healer, his friends and family created the Lightning Boy Foundation Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit, in his honor. The foundation offers free hoop dance instruction to Indigenous youth, as well as regalia, moccasins, hoops, and travel expenses for dance competitions. Along with classes, which start for toddlers as young as two, the foundation can be booked to perform at public and private events.
In 2022, they were honored with an invitation to the White House for the first Native American Heritage Month Reception. They danced before an audience including 400 representatives from all across Indian Country; First Lady Dr. Jill Biden; and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna).
“I tell the kids all the time that this is their heritage, and if they master it, it will open a lot of doors for them, including the door to the highest house in the country—the White House,” Steve says.
Today, Iris Paloma Rivera, 11, and YsaDora Rivera, four, are carrying on their brother Valentino’s dancing legacy. “I want to be an artist, too!” YsaDora says. “I like being around the people here,” Iris adds. “It makes me happy when audience [members] come up and tell me I did a good job.”
LATER IN THE WEEK, THE SISTERS PERFORM on the Santa Fe Plaza with other members of their group. Their faces flash between fierce concentration, placid reflection, and uninhibited joy. Their mother stands in the crowd, watching as they take turns fluttering butterfly wings and holding flower halos fashioned from the hoops.
ShanDien, who also performed with Cirque du Soleil for nine years, says the dance is improvisational in some ways, but mostly uses powwow footwork, which follows the drum’s heartbeat rhythm. The dancers manipulate the hoops into shapes that recall eagle wings, flowers, butterflies, the Earth, and more.
“Our instructors started dancing when they were just little kids,” ShanDien says. “They’ve decided to be culture bearers and pass it on from generation to generation.” The experience is anchored in the hoop, both symbolically and as a material object. “Through the hoops, the dancers are also able to hold a physical piece of their culture.”
While I watch the kids perform, I remember that this is a healing dance. During the performance, I chat a bit with some members of the crowd. We all find ourselves journeying through emotions. There is sorrow for those we have lost recently. There’s also peace, in knowing that we are just a small part of creation; hope, for the integrity of the children; and passion—contagious, and the most healing energy of all. We leave inspired and invigorated, in awe of this life, and a little more healed than when the day began.
Second Annual Nakotah LaRance Youth Hoop Dance Championship 2023
August 5 & 6, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.
Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Museum Hill, 710 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe
Santa Fe Indian Market Performances
August 19 & 20, 1–2 p.m.
The Lightning Boy Dance Group performs as part of the entertainment lineup.