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Delaware Social Dances of the Lenape

This section offers a scholar's look at how social dance songs, used by many tribes originally from the Northeastern Woodlands, differ from modern pow wow and other songs. Dr. Charlotte Heth, a Cherokee ethnomusicologist has defined some commonalities:

  • Dances are performed in a counter-clockwise manner, for the most part.
  • Instruments are either worn on the body, held in the hand and shaken, blown, or beaten upon. The primary drum was and is the water drum.
  • Singing is either responsorial with leader-chorus alternation, or is unison chorus after the leader has "lined out" the beginning of the song. Strophic songs with alternating chorus and verse parts are also common.
  • Songs tend to be short, while performances are long, have many repetitions, and/or are arranged in cycles." (Heth: 174)

    The drum the main singer uses is what is called a "water drum." Many of these were made from a small hollowed log, and there is some water placed in the bottom to create the resonance. For some tribes this drum may be made from pottery, and for still others it may be a cypress knee which has been hollowed out. (Medford: 14)

    The earliest description we have of the water drum is from the Powhatan tribe of Virginia in 1612. We find that the drums "were made of deep wooden platters covered with animal skin. To the corners of the skins were attached walnuts, which were then pulled beneath the platter and tied with a cord." There is no mention of whether the platter contained water, but later in the same century there is a mention of the Powhatans using "drums consisting of skins stretched over pots half filled with water." (Rountree: 97)

    In later years the drum was made from crocks, barrels, or three-legged kettles with a drumhide stretched over them. For example, the drum used by the Delawares in 1780 was described as, "The drum which keeps the time is a thin deer-skin stretched across a barrel, or, in lieu of this, a kettle." (Zeisberger: 18) Today the preferred drum is a made from no. 6 cast iron kettle. One of the most common uses nowadays for the water drum is as the drum used in the Native American Church. However, long before the Native American Church was organized, water drums sounded throughout the east and southeast.

    In addition to the water drum, the other principal musical instrument was the rattle. Among the Iroquois and Delaware rattles could be made of gourds, bark, horn, and turtle shells; however, turtle shell rattles were most often used in ceremonials rather than for social dancing. In more recent times, with international imports readily available, the Shawnees and Delawares adopted the use of coconut shells for rattles. Other tribes, such as the Powhatans, have used native-grown gourds, which were graded for both size and pitch. (Rountree, p. 97).


    The songs which the water drum accompanied, the "social dance songs," cover an immense area, and the same basic songs are used from tribe to tribe to tribe. At this late date it is very difficult to try to determine a tribal origin for most of these songs. It is made even more difficult as most of these songs have vocables instead of words.

    Some songs take the names of foods, such as Bean dance or Corn Dance. Some are named after animals, like Raccoon Dance and Duck Dance. Even the Alligator Dance spread as far north as New York and Canada among the Iroquois people, but what was the origin? We can probably say with a certain degree of safety that alligators did not exist in New York State, so it must have been brought north by one of the southeastern tribes. Some of these tribes were taken into the Iroquois Confederacy.

    Some of the dances were named for other tribes, such as the Cherokee Dance. This is used very commonly by the Shawnee, Delaware, and Caddo, but it seems to not be known by the Cherokees. Of more recent origin there is the Quapaw Dance used by the Delaware, Shawnee, and Caddo.

    Some of the songs have strange names, such as Stirrup Dance in which a man dances with a woman partner, and at a certain point in the song the man raises his foot and the woman places her foot on top of his, almost as if she was putting her foot in a stirrup, and they hop and dance. Another dance with a peculiar sounding name is the "Go-Get-'Em Dance" in which the women gather in front of the men singers, and sing along with them. After about four songs the men come dancing in and they each get a woman to dance around the fire.


    Many of these songs traveled from east to west as various tribes were forced out of their original homelands. Some of these songs, such as the Duck Dance, have a very wide range. It should be mentioned that songs which were of a religious or ceremonial nature to a tribe almost never seem to have been transferred from tribe to tribe.

    In some cases the dances were given to other tribes with permission to use them, such as the Caddo giving the Turkey Dance to the Delawares and Shawnees. As this is not a dance of eastern origin, when it is done the dancers move in a clockwise direction. The authors feel that, given the evidence presently available, most of the songs which the Caddo dance in a counter-clockwise direction were probably learned from the Delawares and Shawnees. Most likely this took place while the three tribes were together in Texas during the last century. Another example of a dance being given to other tribes is that as recently as 1927 the Quapaws gave the Quapaw Dance to the Delawares and Shawnees. (Blalock: pc)

    Sometimes the dances are given to another tribe to "keep" for the tribe doing the giving. At a recent conference in Muncey, Ontario, a Munsee-Delaware woman told how her people had given the "Delaware Skin Beating Song" to the Oneida to keep for them as they were losing their singers. This song continues as part of the songs used by a number of Iroquois singers.

    Frank Speck mentions that a Cayuga man from Canada made a trip to visit the Delaware while they were still in Kansas (prior to 1867), and he returned home with the Stirrup Dance. It has since been renamed "Chicken Dance" or "One-Side Male Dance." (Speck: 154)

    There follows a list of the common Social Dance Songs. The basis for this is a list (column one) by Lewis Henry Morgan of the songs done by the Delawares in Kansas in 1859. He did a similar list for the Shawnees and it is in column six. Most of the names for the dances as given are taken from Morgan. Songs found on his original list are indicated by an X in the first column marked "Morgan 1859." To this list we have added some of the more recent songs, or songs he neglected to name. The first five columns are of Delaware dances. This is followed by two columns of Shawnee Dances, one column of Iroquois Dances, and one of Caddo Dances.

    Here is a table-style presentation about social dances
    that can be printed out easily by most browsers/printers..

    The information in this article is just a beginning. It is our hope that our Indian people and the scholars will continue the research into these beautiful songs, and that they will be preserved for the future generations.


    Adams, Robert Songs of Our Grandfathers: Music of the Unami Delaware Indians , Touching Leaves Indian Crafts, Dewey, Oklahoma, 1991.

    Blalock, Lucy personal communication, 1994.

    Hale, Duane K. Turtle Tales: Oral Traditions of the Delaware Tribe ofWestern Oklahoma , Delaware Tribe of Western Oklahoma Press, Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1984.

    Heth, Charlotte The Arts in America in 1492 in Selected Lectures from the Quincentenary Program, Occasional Papers in Curriculum Series, no. 15, 1992.

    Howard, James H. Shawnee! , Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 1981.

    Kurath, Gertrude Prokosch Songs and Dances of the Great Lakes Indians , (side II Iroquois), Ethnic Folkways Library, Album FM 4003, Folkways Records Corp., New York, 1956.

    Medford, Claude Jr. Southeastern Drums in American Indian Crafts and Culture magazine, pp. 14 - 16, November, 1972.

    Morgan, Lewis Henry The Indian Journals 1859-62 , Dover Publications, Mineola, New York, 1993.

    Newkumet, Vynola Beaver and Meredith, Howard L. Hasinai: A Traditional History of the Caddo Confederacy , Texas A & M University Press, College Station, 1988.

    Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture , University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

    Speck, Frank G. Oklahoma Delaware Ceremonies, Feasts and Dances , Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, vol. VII, 1937.

    Speck, Frank G. Midwinter Rites of the Cayuga Long House , University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949.

    Zeisberger, David History of the Northern American Indians , Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, vol. XIX, 1910.


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