Alaska Native Dance

Central Yup'ik and Cup'ik Songs and Dances

In Yup’ik and Cup’ik dances, the drummers sing and the dancers tell the story with the movements of their arms, bodies and sometimes facial expressions. The men dance in front while on their knees or seated cross-legged, while the women dance standing behind the male dancers. 

The dancers wear kuspuks (cotton garments modeled after traditional parkas), piluguuk or kemeksak (boots made out of bearded seal bottoms or soles and seal, caribou, bear, wolverine, beaver, calf skin, or other fur bearing animals for the upper portions), and women’s headdresses made of wolf, beaver, wolverine, and seal hides. Men and women hold dance fans (tegumiak). Those made for women are made of woven grass and caribou ruff while men’s are made from wood and the wing feathers of large birds. The women’s fans are graceful and flowing, while the men’s are rigid.

Drummers are seated behind the dancers and strike the skin-covered drum on the top. Yup’ik and Cup’ik songs have a chorus, two or more verses.

There is an optional encore (prompted by a shouted “Pamyua!” from the audience). A “pamyua” requires that the group repeat the chorus and dance with great enthusiasm.

The drums were traditionally covered with walrus stomach or scraped caribou hide, but because of limited resources they are now often covered with nylon airplane fabric.

Yup’ik and Cup’ik dance groups often share songs with each other, but they always credit the composers before the songs are performed.

This video shows a seal dance, made by John Pingayak of Chevak, in which the dancers mime the act of hunting for and retrieving a seal they have shot. Note the slow first stanza, when the dancers are catching the beat and preparing for the main portion, two additional verses in relatively sedate tempo, and two final verses that are drummed and danced more quickly, loudly, and with greater vehemence.

This dance was performed in 2009 at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage by the Heritage Center dancers.