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(Many Paths)
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Nakotah LaRance: 'Fearless' performer, caring coach
by Joaqlin Estus - Indian Country Today
'His biggest love was giving back to the Native American youth'
Nakotah LaRance (Photo by Kitty Leaken)

Hoop dancer Nakotah LaRance, Tewa, Hopi, Navajo and Assiniboine, was a world-class athlete and performer. When he danced with Cirque du Soleil at the 2015 opening of the Pan Am Games in Toronto, more than a million television viewers and thousands of people in the live audience watched.

Hoop dancing is a fast-paced dance that involves doing intricate footwork and twirling while throwing hoops into the air and manipulating them into shapes such as wings, tails, an open alligator mouth or a sphere. LaRance choreographed a dance that put his stamina, strength, agility and balance to the test.

One of his moves was to create a sphere with several hoops and toss it into the air, then as it came down, to step into it in such a way that the hoops then became wings.

In casual or other settings (he danced on the runway at a fashion show once), he added hip-hop, moonwalk steps, mime and more dramatic flourishes than in the traditional hoop dance performances.

"But his biggest love was giving back to the Native American youth as a teacher, a mentor for Native American hoop dancing," said his father, Steve LaRance.

Nakotah LaRance died Sunday, July 12, in an accidental fall while climbing on an old bridge in Rio Arriba County in New Mexico. He was 30 years old.

Nakotah started dancing when he was 5. His father took him to a powwow where he met hoop dancer Derrick Davis, who made him his first set of hoops and started teaching him how to hoop dance.

Dan Hagerty is director of strategic development and planning at the Heard Museum in Phoenix and helps facilitate the annual World Championship Hoop Dance Contest. He said museum staff were shocked and saddened to hear of Nakotah's passing.

Nakotah LaRance competing in the Heard Museum World Championship Hoop Dance Contest (Photo courtesy of Heard Museum)

Nakotah competed in the annual Heard Museum World Championship Hoop Dance Contest for many years, Hagerty said in an email, beginning with the youth division and continuing into the teen and adult divisions. He won championship titles in each competitive category, and he won the adult division – earning the title of World Champion – three times, in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

“Nakotah was known for delivering fearless and thrilling performances,” Hagerty said. “His risk-taking in the hoop arena resulted in unforgettable performances, and he will forever remain a fan favorite.”

Nakotah performed on NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, which led to some acting roles.

He won a First Americans in the Arts “Outstanding New Performance by an Actor in a Film” award for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 television series “Into the West.” He also had parts in “Longer Expiration Date” (2006) and "Longmire" (2012).

In 2009, at the age of 20, Nakotah became a principal dancer with Cirque du Soleil and traveled the world for more than three years.

"He really was a top performer," said George Rivera, family friend and co-founder of a youth dance group. "Most human beings, even if they're dancers, would never be able to pull off what he could pull off with his style. And the fact that he was trained to Cirque du Soleil just gave him a whole 'nother dimension of gymnastics and athletic ability as well."

(Related: Nakotah LaRance: The World's Best Hoop Dancer Stays Humble)

After three years, Nakotah was ready to return home. He created a youth group in northern New Mexico, the Pueblo of Pojoaque Youth Hoop Dancers. He was master instructor at the Lightning Boy Foundation Youth Hoop Dancers. He was still in demand as a hoop dancer and traveled extensively for special performances.

Rivera said the dance groups are "just an incredible confidence booster for the young kids."

"We've had kids that wouldn't even hardly talk when they first show up to practices, and now they're just so outgoing and want to perform," he said. "A lot of them, when they start out, they want to be like Nakotah. His influence is just incredible."

Nakotah and his father were also ambassadors of the message of the hoop dance.

"The hoop dance is a healing ceremony," said Steve LaRance. Whenever the children danced, they held best wishes for everybody. The youth would dance for the sick, the elderly and people having mental health problems. "Just a super energy that comes out of performing gives people a whole other feeling about them, what they saw and even about themselves."

The Lightning Boy Foundation Youth Hoop Dance group traveled to Hawaii, throughout New Mexico, and to France, Italy and Switzerland to perform.

"Nakotah pretty much set the stage for everybody becoming fearless and proud at the same time about dancing and performing," Rivera said.

Jojo Vigil, 15, who Nakotah began coaching seven years ago, said his coach did really help with confidence. "He's just like, if you were hoop dancing or doing something, and you're like, 'Oh, I can't do this,' you know, it was pretty much like, 'Oh yeah, you can. If you try, you can do it.' Pretty much the stuff he said, you were like, 'Oh, OK.'"

Nakotah also showed kids how to do hip-hop and skate tricks, and played video games. Vigil said he and Nakotah shared a personal bond.

"He was someone I could talk to who could help me with a lot of stuff," Vigil said. "He was just an overall, just great guy."

Rivera said the Lightning Boys Foundation is accepting donations to help with a memorial, or perhaps a sculpture or painting of Nakotah. The family said it is planning to hold a memorial once the pandemic is over.

Hoop dancer Nakotah LaRance at the "Hip Hop/Electronic: Indigenous Music & Dance of the Grand Performances" in Los Angeles on Aug. 10, 2018. (Photo by Anderson Gould Jr.)

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See Nakotah LaRance dance:

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Lightning Boy Foundation
The Lightning Boy Foundation is a non profit organization in Northern New Mexico that provides traditional hoop dance instruction and other dance programming to youth ages two and up.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today and a longtime Alaska journalist.

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