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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 28, 2001 - Issue 41


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Traditional Dance Reforms Delinquent


 by Heidi Bell Gease, Journal Staff Writer-July 16, 2001

RAPID CITY When crowds gather outside New York City's Lincoln Center in August to watch the American Indian Dance Theatre perform, they'll see a former Rapid City man swaying and stepping through the moves of the grass dance.

But they might not realize they're witnessing a miracle of sorts.

Anyone who knew Darrel "J.R." Brushbreaker Jr. as a teen-ager expected he would be somewhere else now.

"If he would have stayed in the direction he was going, he would have probably ended up in prison or dead," said a woman who worked for juvenile corrections when Brushbreaker was a regular client. "He was really heavy into gangs. ... He had such a chip on his shoulder and attitude, and he has none of that now."

At 22, Brushbreaker is a professional grass dancer. He's married, with a 2-year-old daughter and another child on the way. He's polite and well-spoken.

"I'm a family man," he said during a recent visit to Rapid City. "That's my crew now."

Troubled youth
When he was growing up, Brushbreaker led a different life. "I used to get in quite a bit of trouble," he said, from stealing cars to drinking to fighting. Thick shiny scars on his upper arm, a remnant of gang life, are visible reminders of the actions that landed him at the Juvenile Services Center, Youth Forestry Camp and Plankinton.

"I kind of lost him to that gang business," his father, Darrel Brushbreaker Sr. of Rapid City, said. "He got burned and initiated into a gang and everything, and he was in and out of trouble from there."

Brushbreaker said he was a strict parent, holding his son accountable for his actions and even turning the boy in to police at times. "When he got out of Plank ... I decided it was time for him to go back out to Baltimore and stay with his aunt until he was 18," he said. "If he came back, he'd be a man then. And if he continued (on the same path), he'd be in Sioux Falls."

That decision changed J.R.'s life. His aunt, Georgalene Sparks, a women's traditional powwow dancer for years whose daughters also dance, encouraged him to dance, too.

Brushbreaker danced when he was younger, and decided to try it again. "It seemed like the easiest outfit to get together," he said. "I didn't know that grass was going to be as hard as it was."

He liked it, though, and kept doing it. Powwow dancing brought him closer to his family. "Basically, it was my motivation to stay out of trouble," he said.

He describes moving to the East Coast like hitting "a big old cultural tidal wave."

"You could just go out in Spandex and a parka and nobody would care," Brushbreaker said. In time, he found himself growing more tolerant and open to people who were different. And he noticed something else.

"I saw Indians proud to be Indians," he said. "Here, you see a lot of kids trying to be what they're not."

A Sicangu Indian and Rosebud Sioux Tribal member, Brushbreaker didn't know much about his own culture. He's learning now, even trying to pick up the language.

Widening horizons
Brushbreaker has also learned other things. "I just kind of learned how to sew on my own," said Brushbreaker, who makes his own powwow outfits. "I got lucky enough to find a wife who beads."

He met his wife, Jessica, who is Hawaiian and Saponi Indian, on the powwow circuit.

That's been another revelation. As a child, Brushbreaker remembers going to only one wedding. "I've never really been around people who were married," he said. "We're kind of learning together."

At a Connecticut powwow last year, Brushbreaker met Barbara Schwei, who helped found the critically acclaimed American Indian Dance Theatre. She invited him to join her troupe. Since then, he has appeared with them nationwide.

On Aug. 21, he'll perform with the group at Damrosch Park Bandshell in New York City, as part of the Lincoln Center's monthlong "Out-of-Doors Festival."

The American Indian Dance Theatre combines contemporary music and dance with traditional Indian music and dance. Through it, Brushbreaker has learned fancy dancing, Iroquois-style dance, and, to his surprise, modern dance.

"I never thought of myself as being someone that would do something like that, but it wasn't like (we were wearing) tights," he said with a grin.

Brushbreaker loves dancing, especially for school children. He sees it as a way to change stereotypes of Indians.

Dancing isn't a full-time job yet, though Brushbreaker would like that. He worked construction in between shows last year and now is looking for work in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he and his family recently moved.

Daughter Angelica isn't dancing yet, but she likes powwows. "That makes my heart feel good," Brushbreaker said.

Used to be different
Back in Rapid City recently, Brushbreaker found many old friends' lives hadn't changed. "The only thing is their police record's gotten thicker," he said. "It's crazy. ... There's no point in what we were doing then."

Brushbreaker also visited his juvenile-corrections officer, who has kept in touch and helped him stay on the right path.

"It made me proud to go in there, not as a (client), but as a friend," he said. "It's kind of a rags to riches deal ... as far as knowledge and maturity goes."

His former corrections officer agrees and, like his father, is proud of him for turning his life around.

"He's come a long way," she said. "If anybody's a success, it's Darrel."

People here told Brushbreaker, "You used to be different."

"Yeah," he replied. "I used to be."

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