Terrance Littletent's dancing has wowed Queen Elizabeth II and opened the 2010 Olympic Games, but his top performance so far may have been at Hawthorne Elementary School on Friday afternoon.
"Every time I go, it just gets better and better," said the 37-year-old Canadian from the Kwacatoose Cree Nation, a bit out of breath.
Littletent had just finished a dance routine using 17 hoops to represent the 17 weeks the baby eagle takes to fly from the nest and strike out on its own.
"There's only so much you can learn from books," he told an audience of enthusiastic students before his Native American Heritage Week performance began. "But today, this whole week, we are celebrating Native Americans ... and for a short period of time because we come from a background of singers and dancers ... you can learn firsthand."
"Never ever be scared to share what you know," he added.
In almost complete darkness, his flourescent face paint, neon hoops and dazzling regalia transformed into a moving story of the fledgling eagle learning to fly. The dance was accompanied by a traditional drum song composed and performed by his brother Jason Littletent.
The students could barely stop cheering for the 1998 World Hoop Dance champion.
"I had one of the Hawthorne teachers stop me on my way out and say, 'I have been here for 14 years and I have never seen so much excitement from the kids, including when (the University of Montana's mascot) Monte came,’ ” explained Cathie Cichosz, Missoula County Schools Native American community specialist.
Throughout Native American Heritage Week, Littletent performed 14 dances at Missoula schools and the University of Montana. Cichosz said response from students in other MCPS schools was also been overwhelmingly positive.
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"I believe they learned respect for other cultures and learned to have an open mind about things that are different and perhaps (they now have) less fear of the unknown," Cichosz said.
Hawthorne Elementary was his last stop before traveling back to Saskatchewan on Friday afternoon.
"He was exhausted," said Cichosz. "He keeps himself in very good shape. He is not as tired as I am."
Littletent said the physical fatigue is worth the exchange of knowledge and art.
Littletent said his hoop dance stems from Southwestern tribes and merges with his own culture's performances. In Southwestern cultures, he said, men went into the wilderness to become warriors who would take vows to protect the tribe. After four days without food or water, the warrior would come back and share their visions through the hoop dance.
The dance, of course, represents more than the maturation of an eagle. The hoops and the cylindrical shapes he creates with them also signify the circle of life, the Earth, the sun and the bridging of cultures, tribes and ethnic groups.
"It taught me to respect myself, and respect Mother Earth and respect my elders," he said.