A circle, or hoop, has infinite sides and infinite angles.
“Google it,” Lumhe Sampson encouraged the crowd at a music festival in St. Paul’s Mears Park. From the stage, Sampson held up a white plastic ring, about 2 feet across, and explained how, in indigenous culture, the hoop represents the circle of life, encompassing all the people on Earth. It holds the birds, the bees, the trees, the creepies and crawlies, the stars and the moon — everything in the galaxy — he continued. It represents the way the world is infinite and interconnected.
Then Lumhe (pronounced Lum-he) and his brother Samsoche (pronounced Sam-so-jee), who were dressed in colorful regalia with fringe-lined breechcloths and thick fur leggings, started tossing hoops across the stage.
Electronic dance music layered with Native chanting boomed from big speakers as they spun the rings around their wrists in sync. Then they each linked five hoops together, building ladders to the sky, and hopped in a circle to the throbbing beat. As they spun, the brothers flipped two hoops onto each of their arms, like wings, and morphed into human butterflies.
They were performing an ancient tribal tradition in a setting far from a powwow. Behind the stage, the MCs from Heiruspecs prepped for their set. A city bus roared past.
Lumhe, who often goes by his middle name, Micco (pronounced Me-ko), and Samsoche, whom most people call Sam, have performed hoop dance at Native American ceremonies, school auditoriums, the boardwalk in Venice Beach, Calif., and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington as well as, on this particular July evening, for a crowd of local hip-hop heads.
The Sampson Brothers, as they are known, have taken what is traditionally an individual dance and performed it in tandem, to a wide range of music, including that of contemporary Native pop singers and rappers. Their skill with the complex dance and their innovative, modern style have led to performances around Minnesota and as far away as Paris. Next month they’ll take to local stages for the RAW Artists’ Showcase art show and TEDxMinneapolis.
As the brothers use their hoops to transform into symbols from indigenous stories, they’re also transforming an age-old tradition.
“We bring the traditional dance to contemporary places to demonstrate the connection between the past and the present,” Sam explained. “We’re creating something we can share with people outside our community while still paying homage to those traditional roots.”
Born to perform
For centuries, Native American hoop dance has been used by various tribes as a part of healing ceremonies and for telling stories. It’s a more specialized dance than the more common powwow styles, including grass dancing and fancy dancing, which the Sampson brothers also do.
Their mother, Darice Sampson, a member of the Seneca tribe in western New York, danced and toured with several Native productions and troupes. She taught the boys to dance as soon as they could walk. Growing up, they learned powwow dances as well as global styles including cha-cha, lambada and swing.
The brothers’ parents met during the Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz in 1969. “We were kind of born out of rebellion,” Micco joked. And they were also, it would seem, born to perform.
Their father, the late Will Sampson, was a member of the Muscogee tribe and one of the first indigenous actors to play substantive roles in Hollywood, best known as the silent mental patient Chief Bromden in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Both parents taught the brothers to be proud of their culture and unafraid to share it.
“My father had a chance to rectify and break those stereotypes and tell his story about who he was truly and what Native Americans really were,” Micco said. “It was huge for people to see a Native American actor on stage and film and to be seen as an equal as opposed to just an extra or subhuman.”
Micco and Sam spent their early years growing up outside Los Angeles, where they were teased for having brown skin, long hair, pierced ears and unusual names.
“Every Thanksgiving we got picked on and I would get sent to the office because I would stand up for myself,” Micco recalled.
Despite the prejudice they faced, the brothers performed traditional Native dances not just at powwows, but at school assemblies and even outside local McDonald’s restaurants.
They learned to hoop dance when they were in elementary school, from a man who had admired Micco’s regalia at a powwow and asked their mother to make him an outfit in exchange for giving her sons lessons.
Hoop dance tradition
When the brothers carry their hoops through public places, people tend to ask questions: Are those hula hoops? Do you perform in a circus? (At airports, if the brothers don’t check their hoops, they’re invariably subject to intense TSA scrutiny and swabbing.)
The hoops, the brothers patiently explain, have nothing to do with the 1950s hip-shaking craze. Or the modern fitness buffs and jam-band fans known as “hoopers,” who incorporate the child’s toy into workouts and concerts.
Originally, Native dancers made their hoops from willow-tree wood; today, most are plastic and decorated with paint or tape. Dancers typically use hoops of the same size. (The brothers prefer ones with a circumference of their height.)
Beginners often start with five hoops, but experienced dancers may use 20 or more. Micco recently posted a social-media selfie dancing with 42: His head and waist were encased in hoop globes while hoop chains ran down each leg and from hand to hand, across the span of his back. It looked like he was more hoop than person.
Traditional hoop dance is accompanied by a steady drumbeat and chant-like singing. While dancers create their own choreography, there is a commonality of a visual language.
Classic formations often include natural elements, such as flowers or alligators, represented in indigenous stories. Dancers sometimes hold the hoops in still poses; other times they spin them so quickly that they become nearly invisible, like hummingbirds’ wings.
The brothers have danced with the Native company Dancing Earth, founded by Rulan Tangen, who describes hoop dance as “pyrotechnical” and very specialized. Citing the sharp reflexes required of hunters and dexterous fingers of basket weavers, she called hoop dance “an amplified version of qualities that many Native people had to have for their lifeways.”
Native hoop dance is a mix of athleticism and artistry, of upholding traditions and creating new ones.
“No hoop dance is going to be like another,” Micco said. “You might see similar movements, but no person will dance the same way because we are all individuals — we all have our own story.”
The brothers’ story includes losing their father when they were preschoolers. A few years later, they moved with their mother to Bismarck, N.D., and formed a student dance troupe that traveled around the area.
In high school, they spent summers working in Wisconsin Dells at the now-shuttered Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial, an amphitheater where dancers from many tribes performed for tourists.
As adults, they continued to perform and teach hoop dancing until it became their primary focus, “though we never thought of it as a job because it was just something we like to do,” Sam said.
Micco holds a weekly hoop dancing class in Minneapolis and Sam has taught at Native communities around the state. Both have done several artist-in-residencies at a school on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.
The Sampson Brothers’ visibility has increased through performances with indigenous musicians such as folk rocker Keith Secola, who grew up on Minnesota’s Iron Range and has been called the Native Bob Dylan; Jana Mashonee, an American Indian pop singer; and Frank Waln, a Lakota rapper.
Last spring, the brothers went viral when they represented Minneapolis in the video series “If Cities Could Dance,” by California public media station KQED. In the video, which has been viewed on Facebook more than a million times, the brothers dance across the Stone Arch Bridge and outside the American Indian Center, sometimes in street clothes, other times in full regalia.
Video provided by KQED "If Cities Could Dance."
Kelly Whalen, the series’ producer and co-creator, wanted to feature the brothers because they are reviving and adapting the hoop dance tradition.
“The Sampson Brothers are boundary-pushing on so many fronts,” she said. “They continue to break stereotypes about Native people, just like their father did, and they are pushing this art form in directions that their ancestors could never have imagined.”
In the course of producing the video, Whalen said she was particularly moved by the way the brothers are passing on the dance tradition to their students, who told her how hoop dance had increased their Native pride.
“The Sampson Brothers have this openness to connect with audiences of all walks of life, and they have this really beautiful message of strength and power and resiliency,” she said. “They are powerful ambassadors for Minneapolis and the broader Native community.”
When they’re not dancing, the brothers do visual art (graphic design, painting, photography) and have acted in small films. They’re now also fathers of young children, so being close to their partners’ families on the Bois Forte and Leech Lake reservations in Minnesota factored into their recent moves to Minneapolis. Sam’s son hasn’t yet celebrated his first birthday, but he has his own set of baby-size hoops (which, for now, are mostly giant teething rings). Micco’s sons, ages 9 and 4, perform with their father.
Hoop dance how-to
For the past two years, Micco has taught a hoop dance class at the American Indian Center in Minneapolis. It’s free and open to the public.
On a recent Wednesday evening, Micco arrived dressed in shorts and a tank top, carrying a stack of hoops and three types of liquid fuel: water bottle, Naked juice and canned Starbucks espresso.
Most of the students, kids and young adults, have Native heritage. Their skill level ranges from beginning to experienced.
“The first lesson in hoop dancing is that these hoops represent our world and everything in it and you are a part of that world,” Micco explained. Then he demonstrated how to step down on the hoop and drag your foot back, popping it up like a skateboard.
He put on some music (electronica mixed with Native drumbeats and chants) and led the students through a warmup that incorporated hoops. Then, he snaked his tall, lean frame through his hoops as he called out instructions: “Step on through,” “Pop it up.”
In a few moves, he was standing within a nest-shaped basket of hoops. With a few more, he transitioned into an eagle: arms spread wide with a chain of hoops stretched between them. The students followed along, flapping their hoop wings while whirling their bodies.
“They say every time a hoop dancer passes through a hoop it brings their life back one revolution, so they get younger and younger and younger,” Micco said. “I tell that to people right before I ask them to guess how old I am.” (He and Sam are in their mid-30s, but could pass for younger.)
“It’s pushups for your brain,” Micco said. “And the funny thing is you don’t even think you’re doing it. It’s just fun — you think you’re playing.”
But their dancing has a serious goal: to inspire indigenous youths.
“We want them to see us and know that they can be culturally connected, but still be successful in Western society,” Sam said. “Being indigenous in this time and age, you have to walk in two worlds.”
The brothers hope their hoop dancing also encourages non-Native audiences to reconnect with their roots and live in greater harmony with the Earth.
“For our nonindigenous communities, it’s the same kind of message: We want them to find their cultural connection, too,” Sam said.