Before you could see Henrietta McGurk on Saturday, you could hear the tinkling metal of the jingle dress in her garment bag.
McGurk joined about 150 dancers at the 39th annual UC Davis Contest Powwow at The Pavilion.
Some, like McGurk, dance for a living. Others, like Alorha Baga, who lives and teaches dance on the Santa Rosa Rancheria, do it for joy alone.
All, they say, dance out of love for their culture.
McGurk, a 40-year-old full-time student and mother of four from Sacramento, is of Navajo and Apache heritage.
She was among about two dozen members of her family on hand. She made fast work of the long braids on the girls, who when freed spun and laughed, drank Capri Sun and played on cell phones as circles of drummers thumped and sang.
McGurk worked with comb and hair spray for well over an hour before unpacking her own dress.
“This is my way of life. This is how I make my living. It makes us feel good. To be here with family is the best feeling in the world,” she said.
Like many women dancers, McGurk and Baga wear bright dresses adorned with dozens of small metal cones. The dresses can weigh 10 pounds or more.
Legend holds that the jingle dress first appeared in the dream of an Ojibwe medicine man whose daughter fell ill.
Once in her new dress, the sick girl still needed to be carried around the room. On her second trip around the room, she needed the help of others to walk. On the third, she walked her own. By her fourth trip, the girl was dancing.
McGurk has danced for as long as she can remember.
Fifteen years ago, she gave up her job at Sacramento’s Native American Health Center when she and her former husband began dancing professionally at powwows.
Prize money varies, but a dancer can win upwards of $2,000 at a large event. Organizers of UCD’s event prefer not to say how much they hand out, except that it’s enough to help many dancers afford the trip.
McGurk has traveled across the country and north to Alberta, Canada, competing almost every weekend, year-round. Most of the time, she drives to the powwows.
It’s given her kids the chance to see the Statue of Liberty and the Florida Keys, when many of their classmates have never left California.
McGurk’s oldest child, Celeste Osife, who was unable to attend on Saturday, is in her third year as a UCD psychology and Native American studies major. McGurk is majoring in business at Sacramento City College and is considering applying to UCD.
For now, dancing is her occupation as well as her passion.
She sews a new jingle dress every three or four months. The construction of each dress takes about a week and costs $400 or $500.
McGurk’s not particular about fabric — “anything pretty” will do — but on Saturday her red satin dress with a white collar included designs of blue and gold. On it hung about 200 metal cones.
Traditionally, the cones were made from the lids of snuff cans. These days, they’re sold pre-made.
With the dress, she wore an elaborate blue beaded head piece, feathers and beaded earrings. The bead work on a dress can take upwards of six months to complete and can cost $1,500, $3,000 or more, McGurk said.
“I still love it. I love dancing. Some people love their job — I love my job,” she said.
As McGurk spoke, girls whirled with bright shawls. A man in traditional headdress looked on, eating Cheetos. Eagle feather bustles hung on camera tripods.
Cameras flashed now and then from the surrounding seats.
On the walkway above, visitors nosed around craft booths. Outside, others lined up for tacos or strawberry shortcake made with fry bread.
Baga, 30, joined 11 family members at the powwow, including her son and daughter. She said she hoped they would soak up the intertribal culture and feel the same sense of pride she still feels when dancing.
She attends powwows across the region, mostly during the summer months. She has danced as far away as Colorado and South Dakota.
“I do it because I was raised that way and I do it for the joy of it,” said Baga, who carried a fan of feathers. “It’s always a perk to place, but I go to powwows where there aren’t prizes and treat them the same.
“It’s an honor to get out there and dance.”
Baga designs a new jingle dress about once per year and is partial to the “flame” colors of red, yellow and orange she wore Saturday. Her cousin sews the dresses.
Baga does her own beading, though, drawing on traditional designs that are in keeping with her Rosebud heritage. Many dancers do the same, mixing imaginative flair in their dresses while holding fast to tribal tradition in their breaded bracelets and other accessories.
A great dancer has put time into both her appearance and her zigzagging footwork, McGurk said, and keeps rhythm well.
Great dancers move both with energy and lightness of foot.
Said Baga, “You can tell by their poise if they’re connecting with the drum. You can see their spirit in their dance.”