On Saturday and Sunday, February 9 and 10, more than 50 Native American hoop dancers from all around the world gathered together to showcase their skills and talent as they competed in the 23rd Annual Heard Museum World Championship Hoop Dance Contest. Among them was Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member Rito “RJ” Lopez, Jr., 6, who took first place in the contest’s Youth Division.
Hoop dancing was originated by the Taos Pueblo people of New Mexico and represents the Circle of Life and the continuous cycle of summer and winter, day and night, male and female. Dancers incorporate speed and agility as they manipulate their bodies through one to more than 50 hoops; the dancing is accompanied by either Northern or Southern drums.
Lopez was the youngest competitor as he competed against 20 other youth from Canada, Michigan, New Mexico, California, Montana and Arizona in the Youth Division, for contestants ages 6-12.
“The first day the judges choose six dancers to continue onto the next round,” said Lopez’s father, Rito Lopez, Sr. “The second day the judges choose three dancers to dance in the finals for first, second and third place.”
Dancers were judged on dance rhythm, creativity, speed and showmanship.
“When he was awarded first place in his division, he had the biggest smile on his face,” said Lopez. “I wasn’t sure whether or not he was going to win; the boy he competed with in the final round was older and a very good dancer. When they were announcing the winners, I kind of was getting him prepared to run up there when they announced second place. [But] when they announced the other boy’s name, all of his uncles and the other dancers knew RJ received first place, and they surrounded and congratulated him. It was a cool experience.”
Lopez started dancing when he was 3 years old. This is his second year competing in the Heard’s World Championship Hoop Dance Contest. Last year he participated in the Youth Division, barely missing the cut for the final round. He has participated in the competition since he was 3 years old.
One of his favorite tricks is when he is the prairie chicken; he emulates the bird’s dance by making a bustle out of the hoops and dancing with it on his back.
“We’re always trying to put our kids in positions to succeed, and we are proud of his commitment to practicing,” said Lopez. “We have to take hoops out of his bed because sometimes he falls asleep with them. We are glad he found something he is passionate about at an early age.”
RJ and his family would like to thank his grandparents, Ken and Doreen Duncan, for teaching them to respect tradition and dance through their dance group, Yellow Bird Indian Dancers. Also, they thank each of his uncles for taking him under their wings and being good role models for him. His uncles Tony, Kevin, Sky and Talon Duncan are all champion dancers who share all they know with him. Tony and Kevin Duncan won second and third place, respectively, in the Adult Division this year, while Talon Duncan took second place in the Teen Division.
“He is always following his uncle Talon around, talking about dance moves and how is routine should go,” said Lopez. “We’d also like to thank Toby and Mandaree Jose for singing for him at the competition, and Ernesto, Pila, Luis and Cruz Lopez for always supporting us as a family.
“We’re so happy that RJ was able to represent his Community in such a positive way, and we hope to encourage other kids here that if they practice and work hard, they can reach their goals,” explained Lopez.
Lopez dances on Fridays and Saturdays at Talking Stick Casino at 6 p.m. as part of the Get Inspired Native American cultural presentation, which features the Yellow Bird Indian Dancers.
Results of the 23rd Annual Heard Museum World
Championship Hoop Dance Contest
First: Derrick Suwaima Davis (Hopi/Choctaw)
Second: Tony Duncan (Apache/Arikara/Hidatsa/Mandan)
Third: Kevin Dakota Duncan (San Carlos Apache)
Fourth: Dallas Arcand (Cree)
Fifth: Charles Denny (Cree/Northern Ute)
Sixth: Nakotah LaRance (Hopi/Tewa/Assinboin)
First: Brian Hammill (HoChunk)
Second: Lowery Begay (Dine)
Third: Tommy Draper (Dine)
First: Tyrese Jensen (Navajo/Maricopa)
Second: Talon Ree Duncan (San Carlos Apache)
Third: Chantika Hazell (Metis Nation of Alberta)
First: Rito Lopez (Pima/Apache/Arikara/Hidatsa/Mandan)
Second: Qootscenma Denipah (Dine/Hopi/Ohkay Owingeh)
Third: Nanabah Kadenehii (Dine)
Judges invoked a rare tiebreaker in the adult division, requesting that Charles Denny (Cree/Northern Ute) from Fort Duquesne, Utah, and Nakotah LaRance (Hopi/Tewa/Assinboin) return to the stage for a dance-off for fifth and sixth place.