Winnie Guess Perdue: from ballerina to traditional dancing

A portrait of Winnie Guess Perdue by Cherokee artist Kindra Swafford.

MUSKOGEE – First excelling in ballet, Winnie Guess Perdue broke barriers as a Cherokee and female when she took on learning traditional dances that were performed by Native American men of Plains tribes.

Waiting to study with famed Native prima ballerina Yvonne Chouteau in New York City, Perdue was performing in Muskogee when she was mesmerized by traditional dances performed by the Bacone Indian College Traditional Native Dancers club.

“I was captivated by their dancing and especially by the hoop dance,” she said. “I asked my parents if they would arrange for me to learn the dances and pretty much the rest is history.”

Starting traditional dances at age 12, Perdue eventually became one of a few women to accomplish fancy dancing and hoop dancing.

“I was a seasoned performer and I transitioned from ballet to Indian dancing with ease,” she said. “The dances held a powerful and spiritual presence and I was humbled to perform them.”

Her parents arranged for her to learn from hoop dancer and Kiowa citizen Jack Anquoe.

“I was honored as Jack was a traditionalist and adhered to all cultural mores, and yet he was confident that I could successfully break this new ground,” she said. “Traditionally these ceremonials are performed only by male Plains Indians. I was a female Cherokee and I was making a new path.”

After three months, she danced in her first powwow in Okmulgee. From there she was able to showcase her talents as a specialty dancer at more powwows and on TV.

“It was a couple of years before I was accepted by others and recognized as an accomplished dancer,” she said.

As a fancy dancer, Perdue dressed in regalia with feather bustles and quill roaches, and danced the fast and slow war dance, butterfly dance and squat dance. As a hoop dancer she said she danced “old school” traditional.

“The dance required exceptional skill and agility as we danced through eight hoops,” she said. “We didn’t create ‘images/forms’ as is practiced today. We focused on intricate footwork as we danced.”

She and Anquoe also performed the eagle dance and other specialty dances, including the shield dance and scalp dance.

“My parents, under Jack’s direction, made my eagle wings and my father made my eagle head,” she said. “This dance depicts the eagle bringing down messages to the people from the Creator or Great Spirit.”

She said one of her most memorable performances was in 1953 at the first Cherokee National Holiday where she performed the hoop, eagle and war dances.

“(It was) a groundbreaking day as a Cherokee girl was honored as a dancer of Plains Indian ceremonials,” she said.

More recently she was recognized by the Tulsa Powwow organization as a pioneer of early female fancy dancers.

“There were only four to five of us and I was the only hoop and eagle dancer,” she said.

Perdue performed her final hoop dance 38 years ago at Tulsa Memorial High School but continues taking part in local powwows and as a guest speaker in local events.

In 2016, she was part of an exhibit called “Cherokee Women Who Changed the World” alongside other notable Cherokee women in a display at the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum.

Perdue did not stop after her dancing days were over, she continued as a race walk competitor in the National Senior Games and serves on several boards for Native-based organizations.

“My belief is that our lives come together like beads on a loom, ordinary events and ordinary people create the extraordinary tapestry of our lives. My tapestry is diverse and colorful and for that I am eternally grateful,” she said.