Colorful illustration of a person wearing traditional dance garments
Art by Marlena Myles

Fancy Dancer

Rory doesn’t believe in himself—until a special person helps him realize how strong he is

By Monique Gray Smith
From the October/November 2022 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will follow how Rory, the main character, changes as he learns how to fancy dance. They will analyze how the experience has affected him, giving him confidence and connecting him to his Cree culture.

Lexile: 600L-700L
Guided Reading Level: R
DRA Level: 40
Other Key Skills: text evidence, inference, compare and contrast, character’s motivation, plot, key idea, how a character changes

Story Navigation

UP CLOSE: Character

As you read, think about how connecting to his family and culture affects Rory.

Mom walked a bit lighter on the earth. My little sister, Suzie, giggled louder. And I—well, I gained a dad. Most people would call Paul my stepdad, but there’s nothing “step” about him.

My real father had left two years earlier, when I was 9. One day, he just never came home from work. You probably think that as his son, I was sad. But I wasn’t. You see, my father was not a kind man.

When my parents found out they were pregnant with me, my father moved Mom far away from her family in Saskatchewan (suh-SKA-chuh-wahn), Canada, to Ann Arbor, Michigan. I had never met my grandparents, aunties, uncles, or any of my cousins.

My father never said it, but I’m pretty sure he was ashamed that my mom was Cree. Why else would he forbid her to speak Cree or do anything at all that was part of our culture?

After my father left, Mom met Paul at the University of Michigan, where they both work. He quickly became a regular around our house. He’s Cree like us. Soon after, Mom got back in touch with her family. Our family. Although we hadn’t been able to go to Canada to meet them, we were using FaceTime a couple of times a week. I liked knowing I was part of a big family and that I looked like them. I especially loved watching how Mom laughed with her siblings.

Now Mom walks every day with her head high and her shoulders rolled back.


A couple of months after Paul moved in, we were driving home from a day of fishing when he turned on the stereo. The drumbeat in the music went right to my heart. My head began to move to the beat.

“You ever been to a powwow?” Paul asked.

“A what?”

“Guess that answers my question.”

“What’s a powwow?” I asked him.

“It’s both a ceremony and gathering, where we dance, sing, visit, and laugh.” Paul chuckled. “Then there’s the food. My mouth waters just thinking about the fry bread loaded with butter and salt. Oh, and I can’t forget the Indian tacos. No powwow is complete without at least one Indian taco. Mmm!

After a moment, he added, “But really, for me and how I was raised, a powwow is a way of honoring our traditions, our families, and our Ancestors.”

“Is it just us?” I asked. “You know, uh, Native Americans?” Our family had hidden who we were for so long that I wasn’t sure what to call us.

“Mostly, yes. Native people travel from all over to go to powwows, but non-Natives are welcome too. That’s part of the beauty of the powwow, the sharing of cultures.” He turned his head toward me. “We have one of the biggest powwows in the United States right here in Ann Arbor. It’s called the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow.”


Paul nodded. “I noticed you dancing in your seat. I think you have the moves to be a fancy dancer.”

“OK, first of all, I don’t even know what a fancy dancer is. And second . . .” My father’s voice ran through my mind. Hope you got some brains in that head of yours, ’cause you sure ain’t got any hopes of being on any sports team.

I leaned my head against the window. “I’m not good at anything that requires coordination. I’d probably be awful at this fancy-dancing thing.”

Paul glanced at me. “Dancing isn’t just about being athletic, it’s about telling a story and revealing the strength that is in your heart,” he said. “There is a lot of strength in your heart, Rory.”

We sat in silence except for the powerful beat coming out of the speakers. My upper body began moving again.

“You know, Rory, I was quite a fancy dancer back in the day. If you wanted, I could teach you.”


“Sure. I’d love to.”

Hesitantly, I answered, “OK. Might help if I knew what a fancy dancer was.”

Paul laughed. “You’ll find out.”

The next night in the garage, I had my first fancy-dance lesson.

When Paul turned on the music, he told me, “Just close your eyes. Let the drumbeat and the song wake you up. Notice your breathing.

My body wanted to move, but I was afraid to give in to the urge. I was afraid I wouldn’t do it right.

It was like Paul could read my mind.

“It’s OK, Rory. There’s no right way, only your way.” He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in my eyes. “Your body remembers how to dance. Your Ancestors have been dancing like this for generations. Trust yourself.”

After a couple of months of practicing two nights a week, I could feel my whole body getting stronger. I loved the dancing but especially the time with Paul. 

It was an icy-cold January morning when I found it, lying there in front of my cereal bowl: a flyer for the annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow. On the flyer Paul had written, I think you could be ready to dance at this, but it doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what you think. Love, Paul.

Then I heard my father’s voice in my head: How Indian are you trying to be, Rory?

Maybe he was right. But I felt different when I danced. More like me. It was all so confusing. I crushed the flyer into a tiny ball and tossed it into the garbage.

That night I pretended to have a stomachache. I was lying on my bed when there was a knock at the door. Paul came and sat on the side of my bed. “If you can’t come to the garage to dance, then the dancing is going to come to you.”

“I really don’t feel like it.”

“I know. That’s why I brought some homework for you.”

Paul placed an iTunes gift card beside me on the bed. “I want you to download your favorite powwow music.”

I tried not to smile, but I couldn’t help it. 

“Then I want you to practice standing on one foot at a time, up on your tippy toes. I want you to focus on your breathing, like I showed you. We have to get your mind and body believing in each other.”

I gave him a what are you talking about? look.

“Right now, your mind and your body don’t trust each other. Learning to believe in yourself is the greatest gift fancy dancing will give you.”

That night, as I practiced my balance, I felt a determination I’d never felt before. I decided I was going to prove my father wrong. But mostly, I was going to prove to myself that I could do it. I was going to be proud of who I was.

I had just over two months to get ready for the Junior Boys Fancy Dance.

A couple of weeks later, I found two boxes on my bed. I noticed the return address was my mom’s home community in Canada. I opened the large one first and pulled out the most beautiful regalia. I had been watching fancy dancing on YouTube and hadn’t seen anything quite like this. It was turquoise, white, and black, and when I held it up to myself, I knew it would fit.

I quickly opened the other box. Wrapped carefully in tissue paper was a bustle that matched. At the bottom of the box was a letter. 


I want you to have my regalia. Dance it proudly. Make it come alive . . . just like I used to. If the feathers got a bit squished, ask your mom to steam them. She’ll remember how. I hope to see you dance one day. Hey, you should come home for our powwow. I can teach you some of my moves.

Uncle Fred

Come home. Those words put tears in my eyes. I’d always thought of Ann Arbor as home, but I was beginning to wonder if there were lots of places to call home. 

Finally, the day we’d been preparing for arrived. I stood near the entrance to the Skyline High School gym, and Paul adjusted my headpiece. “Ready?” he asked.

I shook my head. The other dancers looked calm, confident.

Paul took my chin between his thumb and forefinger. “Don’t be comparing yourself to the other dancers. When you walk out there, you breathe deep. Feel those Ancestors with you, and on that first drumbeat feel their love come alive in you.” I gave a slight nod.

Paul continued. “The first time I danced, I was afraid. Shaking so hard my feathers were jiggling. But I’ve learned that sometimes in life, you gotta be brave before you can be good.” He motioned his head out to the gym. “Go out there and be brave, Rory. The good will come.”

Then he smiled. “Kisâkihitin (kee-SAH-gee-tin),” he said, using the Cree for I love you.

I smiled back at him and felt myself relax. “Kisâkihitin, Dad.”

I took my place in the flow of dancers entering the gym. I rolled my neck, lifted my shoulders, and planted my feet solidly. I scanned the bleachers for where my mom, my sister, and Paul were sitting.

When I found them, I gave a nod and they all waved. I could see my mom wiping tears from her eyes. She put her hand on her heart.

Then the host announced, “Junior Boys Fancy Dance. It’s powwow time! Let’s see what you got, boys.”

With the first beat of the drum, I began to dance. I felt alive. Proud. Cree. 


Meet a Real-Life Fancy Dancer

From the back seat of the car, 12-year-old Tank Young watches his hometown of San Lorenzo, California, fade farther into the distance. The drive will be long. But Tank is excited.

Soon, he’ll be laughing with friends, eating buffalo burgers, and dancing to the beat of drums. To Tank, there is no place better than where he’s going: a powwow.

Powwows are gatherings where Native Americans connect with each other and celebrate their cultures. People dance, sing, tell stories, and eat special foods.

Most powwows are intertribal, meaning that people from many Native American nations attend. Tank is Cherokee, Choctaw, Apache, and Taos Pueblo. But people who are not Native American are also welcome at many powwows so they can learn about Native American cultures. Every weekend, there are powwows of all sizes across the U.S. and Canada.

In this interview, Tank talks about one of his favorite parts of powwows: the dancing.

Courtesy of Adam Sings

Tank dancing in his regalia

When did you start dancing?

I started dancing right after I started walking! And even before that, my mom carried me in the dance circle, which is where the dancing happens at a powwow. Being there got so normal to me that I just started dancing and loving it.

Where do you practice?

I go to a place called the Intertribal Friendship House every Wednesday. There’s a drum and singers. People of many ages and from many different tribes come to practice and learn dancing there.

How does it feel when you dance?

I was really nervous for the first few dances I did at a powwow. But it just feels good now. If I’m in a bad mood, simply putting on my regalia puts me in a better mood because I know I’ll be dancing soon!

Tell us about your regalia.

My regalia is purple, blue, and white. It took around two years for my family to make my bustles, which are the two circles of feathers I wear on my back. On my head I wear a headdress called a roach. A family friend made it for me from porcupine hair and deer tail.

Why do you dance?

I dance for the people who can’t dance. Some people don’t get to dance because regalia is too expensive, or they’re ill or older. I do it for them, and that’s what’s most important when I dance.

Write to Win

Imagine you are Rory. Write a letter to Paul telling him how learning to be a fancy dancer affected you. Send it to “Fancy Dancer Contest” by December 1, 2022. Five winners will each receive a copy of Ancestor Approved, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Visit the Storyworks Contests page for more information.

This story was originally published in the October/November 2022 issue.

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Celebrate the richness and diversity of Native American cultures with the plays, poems, and articles in our Celebrating Native American Heritage Special Collection.
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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Table of Contents

1. Preparing to Read

2. Reading and Discussing

Close Reading, Critical Thinking

3. Skill Building and Writing

4. Differentiate and Customize

Striving Readers, Advanced Readers, Multilingual Learners

5. Can’t-Miss Teaching Extras

1. Preparing to Read

Watch a Video, Preview Vocabulary, Set a Purpose for Reading

  • Tell students that today, they will be learning about a special tradition. Have students share special traditions in their families or communities. (You can prompt them to share dances, foods, songs, or anything else that they’d like). Then have students look at the opening image and title of the story on page 10. What kind of tradition do they anticipate they will learn about in this story?
  • Explain that fancy dancing is a type of dancing performed at powwows, gatherings where Native Americans celebrate their cultures through dancing, singing, and socializing. Together, read the Q&A with Tank Young, a 12-year-old fancy dancer from California, on page 15.
  • Then let students “meet” Tank and two other Native American kid dancers in our “Celebrating Our Traditions: Meet Three Powwow Dancers” Video. The video will also introduce important terms used in the story.
  • Distribute or assign our Vocabulary Skill Builder to preview five challenging words. Students will be able to add other unfamiliar words from the story as well. Vocabulary words include coordination, hesitantly, traditions, generations, and determination.
  • Have a volunteer read aloud the Up Close box on page 11 for the class. Point out the questions in the margins and the arrows that connect them to lines in bold in the story. Preview the questions together.

2. Reading and Discussing

First Read: Get to Know the Text (20 minutes)

  • Have students read the stories independently or in small groups. They can also listen to our Author Read-Alouds, in which Monique Gray Smith and Talia Cowen read their stories!

Second Read: Unpack the Text (30 minutes)

  • Put students in small groups. Ask them to discuss the close-reading questions in the margins. Go over the critical-thinking questions together as a class.

Close-Reading Questions


  • The Cree are Native peoples living in Canada and the United States. How do these lines support Rory’s statement that his dad was not a kind man? (text evidence, p. 11) These lines support Rory’s statement because they show that Rory’s dad wanted to hide the fact that Rory’s mom is Cree—which is part of who she is. He didn’t let her celebrate her Cree culture and wouldn’t let her speak her language. It is unkind to not let someone express who they are.
  • Why do you think Rory likes connecting with his Cree family? (character, p. 11) Rory likes connecting with his Cree family because he likes knowing that there are other people out there who are like him. He also likes it because it makes his mom happy.
  • Ancestors are family members from the past. Why do you think Ancestors is capitalized? What does this tell you about how Cree peoples view them? (inference, p. 11) Ancestors is capitalized because it is an important word. This shows that Cree peoples view their Ancestors with a lot of respect.
  • How do you think Rory feels as he says “Native Americans”? (character, p. 12) Rory feels unsure. He isn’t confident whether he has the right words to describe who he is.
  • What does dancing mean to Rory at this point? What does it mean to Paul? (compare and contrast, p. 12) At this point, to Rory, dancing is something that seems intimidating and challenging. His father has told him he isn’t good at anything that requires coordination, so Rory believes that he’ll be bad at something like dancing. To Paul, dancing is something meaningful and empowering, and he is excited to share that with Rory.
  • How might thinking about his Ancestors help Rory trust himself? (inference, p. 12) Thinking about his Ancestors might help Rory realize that he’s not the first person to do this—and that he’s probably not the first person in his family to feel nervous about doing it. Also, thinking about his Ancestors might help him believe that dancing is something that his body will naturally know how to do, because his family members have been doing it for generations.
  • Why do you think Rory throws away the flyer? (character's motivation, p. 13) Rory throws away the flyer because he’s doubting whether he should go to the powwow and dance. Right before this, he remembers what his father had said about Rory trying to be “too Indian.” He’s wondering whether it’s OK for him to dance, given what his father has said to him in the past about his lack of coordination and trying to be someone his father doesn’t approve of. But Rory is also confused because he likes the way dancing makes him feel. His doubt and confusion lead him to crush the flyer.
  • How—and why—has Rory come to a turning point, or a change in what he plans to do? (plot, p. 13) Rory has come to a turning point because he realizes that he wants to prove to himself that he can dance and he wants to be proud of who he is. He’s determined to dance, even though it’s challenging. He also wants to prove his father wrong.
  • Why might Rory have a lot of places to call home? (key idea, p. 14) Rory has a lot of places to call home because home isn’t just the place where he lives in Ann Arbor, it’s also the place where his relatives and his Ancestors live and have lived. Home is a place he is connected to, a place where he belongs and is welcome. So now he has many places to call home.
  • How has learning to be a fancy dancer changed Rory? (how a character changes, p. 14) Learning how to fancy dance has given Rory confidence and pride, both in his skills and in his identity. He has grown stronger and learned to trust his body, and he has strengthened his connection to his Cree culture. In addition, participating in the powwow has been an opportunity for him to bond with his mom and her side of the family and, especially, with Paul.


Critical-Thinking Questions

  • Right before the Junior Boys Fancy Dance, Paul tells Rory, “. . . sometimes in life, you gotta be brave before you can be good.” What do you think of this advice? Do you agree or disagree with Paul? (text-to-self) Answers will vary.
  • Why is fancy dancing important to Rory and Tank? How does dancing affect them?(comparing characters) Fancy dancing is important to Rory because it helps him connect with his Cree culture, his Ancestors, and his family. Tank says dancing is important to him because he does it for others who cannot dance. Dancing changes Rory because it gives him confidence and pride in who he is. For Tank, even putting on his regalia puts him in a better mood. Dancing makes both Tank and Rory feel good.

3. Skill Building and Writing

Featured Skill: Character
  • Distribute or digitally assign the Character Skill Builder, which will help students analyze the character of Rory.
  • Ask students to respond to the writing prompt at the end of the story. Encourage them to submit their responses to our writing contest!

Differentiate and Customize
For Striving Readers

For students who are unfamiliar with powwows, these stories may introduce several new terms (powwows, traditions, Ancestors, regalia, bustle, headdress) that could be challenging to keep track of as they’re repeated throughout the video and the articles. As you watch the video and read the stories together for the first time, create a “Guide to Powwows,” noting the main features you learn about or notice in the video. Display it at the front of the classroom so students can refer to it as they read or reread the stories.

For Advanced Readers

Ask students to work together to write an imaginary conversation between Rory—a person who is new to fancy dancing—and Tank—a more experienced fancy dancer. What questions might Rory have for Tank? What advice might Tank give to Rory?

For Multilingual Learners

Some of the language Paul uses to give advice to Rory might be challenging as it is quite idiomatic. (“There is a lot of strength in your heart,” “There’s no right way, only your way,” “get your mind and body believing in each other,” “sometimes in life, you gotta be brave before you can be good.”) As you read, pause to help students understand and interpret the advice.

Can't-Miss Teaching Extras
Explore the Storyworks Archive

Check out other Storyworks stories with Native characters and authors in our Celebrating Native American Heritage collection, perfect for Native American Heritage Month in November.

Learn More About Powwows

This site from CBC Kids has more info about powwows you can share with your readers. And this site has more about regalia.

Find a Powwow

This page from lists the powwows by state. There’s probably one near your area! (Note that this website has ads.) If you are not Native American and you’d like to attend a powwow, be sure to familiarize yourself with the etiquette before you go. (Etiquette can be different from powwow to powwow, but a general list like this one is a great place to start.)