'Powwow Sweat' Promotes Fitness Through Traditional Dance

Apr 17, 2017
Originally published on April 17, 2017 8:34 am

In Indian Country, a gym membership is not a cultural norm and the incidence of heart disease and obesity are high. Native Americans are 60 percent more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites. The Coeur D'Alene tribe, whose headquarters is in northern Idaho, is trying to combat the problem by incorporating culture into fitness programs.

The tribe has created an exercise routine — called "Powwow Sweat" — based on traditional dancing. The program features a series of workout videos that break down six traditional dances into step-by-step exercise routines.

"Drop the pringles and let's jingle," commands Shedaezha Hodge, as she demonstrates the steps that make up the women's "Jingle Dress" dance.

High steps, box steps, cross steps and kicks combine into a routine that would give any Zumba class a run for its money.

"Sweating yet?" Hodge asks, as she encourages the dancers to go faster and kick higher.

All the dances in the exercise program are typical at powwows, including the "Men's Fancy Dance," — which features four basic steps and a hip move. The hip move involves lifting your knee up, then circling it out to the side, all the while bouncing to the drum beat.

"I lost 13 1/2 pounds," says Ryan Ortivez, who attends the weekly "Powwow Sweat" classes at the Coeur D'Alene Wellness Center, in Plummer, Idaho.

"I'm aiming to lose 40 more pounds by the end of the year," he adds.

Ortivez quit smoking this year. He also gave up junk food and soft drinks.

There are some real health challenges in this community, says Terry O'Toole, senior health advisor with the division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has given the Coeur D'Alene tribe $2 million to develop "Powwow Sweat." It also supports a community garden on the reservation and a project that stocks the gas station market with healthy food options.

"Combating obesity requires more than just one initiative or one program," O'Toole says. "It takes a variety of what we call 'population-based strategies.' "

The goal is to achieve community-wide results, O'Toole says.

That isn't going to be easy, says LoVina Louie, director of the tribe's wellness center. Mainstream fitness and nutrition programs don't meet the needs of tribal members, she says.

"What they lack is spirituality," says Louie. "Most programming is only physical, or it's only nutrition. It's in these compartments — whereas we're more holistic," Louie says. "We want to incorporate the mind, body and spirit into what we do."

"Powwow Sweat" is a good example of that — using traditional dance for a high-intensity workout.

"It's almost like jumping rope for 25 minutes straight," Louie says, as she keeps everyone moving through dance steps at one of the weekly exercise classes. "If you don't do it regularly, your calves will hurt, like you're just out of breath, because you're just constantly bouncing."

It's this combination of tradition and exercise that keeps tribal member Ryan Ortivez and his neighbors coming to class each week, to watch the videos and dance alongside each other.

"It's a lot more attractive than doing jogging or the bicycle for me, because it also relates to my culture," says Ortivez.

"I'm in love with my community, first and foremost," he says. "My people. I love to see my community get involved and get active and be healthy."

In addition to losing weight and getting healthy, Ortivez wants to get in good enough shape to dance in the tribe's powwow this summer. If he does, it will be his first time.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A tribe in northern Idaho is incorporating its culture into its fitness programs. It's an effort to tackle high rates of heart disease and obesity. The program is called Powwow Sweat. Northwest News Network's Emily Schwing reports.

EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: The Coeur D'Alene Tribe is known for two things, its hospitality and its powwow. The cultural celebration is one of the largest native gatherings in the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Powwow Sweat.

SCHWING: So the tribe borrowed from that tradition and created an exercise program based on powwow dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Powwow Sweat.

SCHWING: The tribe has released a workout DVD. The series includes a warmup and breaks down moves for six dances typical at powwows, including the Mens's Fancy Dance.

LOVINA LOUIE: Four basic steps and then into the hip move. One, two, three, four, hip.

SCHWING: The hip move involves lifting your knee up...

LOUIE: Hip.

SCHWING: ...And then circling it out...

LOUIE: Hip.

SCHWING: ...To the side, all while bouncing to the drum beat.

LOUIE: Punch, punch, punch...

SCHWING: The tribe also hosts weekly classes at the Coeur D'Alene wellness center.

LOUIE: (Vocalizing).

SCHWING: Several times a week, people gather here on the second floor to dance along to the DVD together. Ryan Ortivez doesn't have a television at home.

RYAN ORTIVEZ: I lost 13 and a half pounds.

SCHWING: You lost 13 and a half pounds doing Powwow Sweat?

ORTIVEZ: Yes. I'm aiming to lose 40 pounds by the end of the year.

SCHWING: Ortivez quit smoking this year. He also gave up junk food and soft drinks.

LOUIE: You guys ready?

SCHWING: Wellness center director LoVina Louie keeps everyone moving through the various dances. Sometimes she pauses the DVD to workshop the most complicated moves.

LOUIE: We're going to jingle.

SCHWING: The Jingle Dress dance involves a sort of box step.

LOUIE: We're going to go up, and then we're going to go a box. So we're going to go one, two, one, two, one, two, stop. That's the box.

SCHWING: She says it's harder than it looks.

LOUIE: If you don't do it regularly, your calves will hurt. Like, you're just out of breath because you're just constantly bouncing. It's almost like jump roping for 25 minutes straight.

TERRY O'TOOLE: We know, for example, that American Indians and Alaska Natives are 60 percent more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites. And so they have real health challenges in their communities.

SCHWING: Dr. Terry O'Toole is with the CDC's Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity division. Since 1999, the agency has funded requests for community-based health projects. O'Toole's office granted the Coeur D'Alene tribe $2 million to develop Powwow Sweat. It also supports a community garden here, an effort to promote indigenous foods and a project that stocks the reservation's gas station market with healthy food options.

O'TOOLE: Combating obesity requires more than just one initiative or one program. In fact, it takes a variety of what we call population-based strategies.

SCHWING: The goal, O'Toole's says, is to achieve community-wide results. But according to the Coeur D'Alene Tribe's wellness center director LoVina Louie, that goal isn't easy on a reservation because mainstream fitness and nutrition programs don't meet the needs of tribal members.

LOUIE: Most programming is only physical, or it's only nutrition. It's in these compartments, whereas we're more holistic.

SCHWING: It's that combination of native tradition and exercise that keeps tribal member Ryan Ortivez and his neighbors coming to class each week to watch the DVD and dance alongside each other.

ORTIVEZ: Far more attractive than doing jogging or the bicycle because it also relates to my culture and my people.

SCHWING: In addition to losing weight and getting healthy, Ortivez wants to be in good enough shape to dance in the tribe's powwow this summer. If he does, it'll be his first time. For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing on the Coeur D'Alene Reservation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.