By Laura Latzko
Kenneth Shirley spent his formative years watching his mother, a fancy shawl dancer.
Inspired, he is now traveling the world as a Diné fancy dancer with Indigenous Enterprise, which he founded in 2015.
Indigenous Enterprise spotlights dancers from different tribes and nations, all of whom interact and engage with the crowd, getting them hyped.
The dancers highlight styles such as fancy, hoop, fancy shawl, jingle dress and chicken dance, and are affiliated with the Diné, Umatilla, Salt River Pima-Maricopa and Plains Cree tribes and nations.
“They love how it’s diverse and how it’s multiple tribes and not just one representation,” Shirley says about his audiences.
“They like seeing the diversity.”
The performers exude a youthful energy, blending traditional and contemporary movements, with a high level of showmanship that results in standing ovations and loud applause.
“I don’t want them to sit there and be all quiet. I want them to make some noise,” Shirley says.
Indigenous Enterprise’s early years saw college students from a variety of local institutions, including ASU, and Chandler-Gilbert and Scottsdale community colleges. Their stages were Valley community colleges.
The group’s lineup has changed and grown over the years. Besides Shirley, only a few original members remain, including Diné chicken dancer Ty Lodgepole.
Dancers like Lodgepole and Shirley bring along other talents like fashion design. They all make their own regalia, or the traditional clothing they wear when they perform.
In May, Shirley and Dominic Pablo, a fellow fancy dancer with Indigenous Enterprise, attended the “Gilded Age”-themed Met Gala in traditional regalia.
Shirley, a filmmaking graduate from ASU, made his traditional clothing for his first major red-carpet appearance.
He says he and Pablo were trying to send a larger message. Indigenous Enterprise’s mission is centered around preservation, education, performance and progression.
“We went over there and made a political statement, saying, ‘This is the real America,’” Shirley says.
It’s part of a larger effort to branch out into fashion, film and television. In June 2020, the group appeared on Jennifer Lopez’s show “World of Dance,” blending Native American and hip-hop B-boy styles into their performance.
The group prepared by rehearsing long hours for two months. Jorge Gonzales-Zuniga Jr., a hoop dancer with Indigenous Enterprise, says usually the dancers perform separately, so collaborating was a new experience.
Education is key
During shows, the Indigenous Enterprise educates audiences on their styles.
“Spectators may not know what the dance is. That’s why during shows, we explain it. We explain the meaning, the reasoning and its purpose,” Gonzales-Zuniga says.
“And then usually we always do two rounds of performance. We do the more serious version, and after that, we crack a few jokes here and there in the second round.”
As part of that education, they created their own clothing brand featuring signature hoodies and T-shirts.
They feature larger messages such as “Grand Theft America,” “Indigenous Liberation,” “Actions Speak Louder than Words” and “Protect the Youth.”
As part of its “BornXRaised” project, the group paid tribute to elders through a special line of clothing. Proceeds from the project went to @UnityInc76, a national network for Native American youth.
Shirley says the goal was to always reach beyond dance.
“We wanted to be able to brand it not just as a native dance troupe,” he says.
“We wanted to have a native clothing line. We just had a couple of clothing collabs that got featured in Vogue. We are working on getting our filmmaking stuff taking off. … We called it Indigenous Enterprise because we want to let the world know we are not just dancers.”
In 2016, the group worked with Taboo, of the Black Eyed Peas, on “Stand Up/Stand N Rock,” a video protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Shirley says with many of its projects, Indigenous Enterprise tries to spread awareness about current social and political issues.
Commemorated in a 2018 documentary at the Chandler International Film Festival, Indigenous Enterprise has performed all over the world, including at the Sydney Opera House, Lincoln Center, the NBA Finals and virtual inauguration of President Joe Biden.
Locally, the group has entertained at the Heard and Pueblo Grande museums and the Tempe Center for the Arts. In May, the group took part of a multitribal performance at Chase Field during Native American Recognition Day.
“They love it. They go crazy for it because they have never seen it before,” Shirley says.
Gonzales-Zuniga says the group developed a following in Australia after being featured in local media.
“We made a name for ourselves out there. When we came home, we had to face reality and go back being humble,” Gonzales-Zuniga says.
All of the dancers in Indigenous Enterprise have interesting backstories.
Shirley’s mom brought him into the circle and started dancing at age 2.
Gonzales-Zuniga began hoop dancing around 2015, when he was 15, and joined Indigenous Enterprise the next year. He continues to be one of the youngest members in the troupe.
Gonzales-Zuniga says hoop dancing helps him connect with his culture as a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
“My whole reasoning of dancing was I had no knowledge of my own culture and traditions,” Gonzales-Zuniga says.
“I only knew what everyone else knew around me, pretty much some slang, a couple of actual words in the language and some knowledge of who we were as a people. I wanted to dance to be in touch with my own native roots.”
The dancer placed in the top 10 in the adult division at the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest at the Heard in 2022. He also held the title of Mr. Indian Scottsdale Community College.
He dances with hoops that he made himself. He often wears colorful regalia and opts for simpler white hoops with colorful electrical tape.
He soon hopes to branch out and start doing fancy dance, which he learned from other performers.
“The old way is usually when you wanted to learn, you would sit, watch and listen. That’s what I’ve been doing lately,” Gonzales-Zuniga says. CT