The Jingle Dress Dance began with the northern tribe Ojibwa in the early 1900s and became prevalent in the 1920s in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the US, and in Ontario in Canada.
The story is that the dress was first seen in a dream. A medicine man’s granddaughter grew sick, and as he slept his spirit guides came to him and told him to make a Jingle dress for her. They said if she danced in it the dress would heal her.
The Jingle dress was made, and the tribe came together to watch her dance. At first, she was too sick to dance alone and so her tribe carried her, but after a little time she was able to dance alone, cured of her sickness.
It is likely that the sickness she was experiencing was a part of the 1918 flue pandemic, which hit the Native American communities hard close to the Great Lakes. This was closely followed by a federal ban on ritual dancing in the 1920s on reservations. The dance has since been not only a dance of healing but also one of pride.
The dance is now performed competitively and in ceremonies by women and girls of all ages.
The Jingle Dress, also known as a Prayer Dress, is considered to bring healing to those who are sick. As mentioned above, the dance gets its name from the rows of (metal cones) sowed to the dresses. These cones are traditionally made from rolled snuff can lids and hung from the dress with ribbon close to one another, so they make a melodic sound as the girls and women dance. Nowadays, these cones are often machine-made.
The dresses come in every color imaginable, from yellow to bright blue, to deep red, and accented with sparkles and even neon-colored fabrics. They are often made with shiny and sparkly materials and decorated with fringes, embroidery, beading, and more.
They usually have three-quarter length to full-length sleeves and come down to mid-calf or the ankle. They are secured at the waist with a thick belt, often made of brown leather. On their feet, the dancers wear decorative moccasins embellished with the same kind of detail as found on their dresses.
Traditionally, the dresses were often made from old formal wear and other repurposed dresses and didn’t include the decorative beadwork, or the beaded leggings we see today on and beneath the dresses.
As the metal cones hit one another it sounds like rain falling, so it’s important for the dancers to move their feet in time with the drum and stop when the beat stops. Moving lightly on their feet, they keep their foot movements low to the ground, kicking their heels and bouncing on their toes to the music. Typically, this dance is done in a zigzag pattern, said to represent one’s journey through life.
Often, they keep their hands on their hips, and if they are dancing with a feathered fan (full of neutral colors, like eagle feathers) as the more modern Jingle Dress dancers do, they will raise it into the air as they dance to receive healing.
The traditional dance involves low, soft-footed steps, as could be performed by those who were sick, while the modern competitive dancers push the boundaries some as they try to out-dance their competitors.
The music for a Jingle Dress dance has a foundation of a solid drumbeat for the women to dance to, and of course, the metal cones make a loud jingling (hence the name) as the women move which contributes to the music you’ll hear at a Jingle Dress dance.
Jingle dancers will usually dance to Northern drum groups. Special songs for Jingle Dance include a Side-Step or Crow Hop.