Dancing through life: world champion hoop dancer shares her story
March 23, 2023
LANDER - When Jasmine Pickner-Bell was five years old, her father, renowned hoop dancer Dallas Chief Eagle, gave her one hoop: a circle representing her inner self.
"I remember he decided that he was going to show me this kind of vision that he had had about myself becoming a hoop dancer," Pickner-Bell, the enrolled Crow Creek Dakota Sioux Tribe member and South Dakota native, said. "He said there's this balance that's missing within our sacred circle."
Back then, hoop dancing was a male-dominated dance form, and Dallas told little Jasmine that years ago, their tradition included a male society and a female one – "like a check-and-balance type of thing," she recalled.
But today, the respect that was once given to women has to be earned.
"He said, 'You're going to bring back a balance to this circle by bringing in a female aspect of the hoop dance.'"
And that's when he handed her her first hoop.
The two-time world champion hoop dancer has traveled across the world, performing in Austria and Germany and coaxing U.S. First Ladies to give the dance a try. As a teen, she met another world champion – Muhammad Ali – who kindly kissed her on the cheek.
Today, when the Riverton resident and famed dancer recalls the decades and miles she's spanned with her career, she thinks back to that first hoop.
Pickner-Bell's entire family was a performing one, with her parents and older brother and sister all traveling to dance. Hoop dancers use multiple hoops in their dances, and she remembered watching her family members doing amazing routines with all kinds of hoops, and here she was with just one.
"Years down the road it came to my realization that what my father was teaching me is the self-discipline of learning how to dance with yourself before you can dance with any other hoops in life," she explained.
The first hoop represents you, and the ones that come after represent relationships you make along the way.
"If your first hoop isn't whole, your heart, your mind, your body isn't whole," she said. That first hoop lays the foundation for everything else.
Growing up as a young dancer traveling with family was unique. They were on the road all the time, and Pickner-Bell often found herself completing her school work remotely – before the internet made that common. Sometimes school tests would be mailed to her on the road, and she'd mail them back to her teachers to make sure she was current while the family traveled.
Pickner-Bell looked up to her older brother as a mentor, and her freshman year he was training for the World Championship Hoop Dancing Competition when he was tragically killed in a car accident.
"I felt like I wanted to do something in his honor and carry his dream for him," she recalled.
So she used the months leading up to the competition and practiced hard.
"Before he passed away there were some moves that he had taught me that really helped me realize that he was preparing me for something bigger," Pickner-Bell said. "I put all this energy and this love into [my performance]."
Because there weren't enough female dancers to divide the hoop competition into separate divisions, Pickner-Bell competed against experienced males - and took the crown that year.
And she defended her world champion title the next year by winning again.
Instead of choosing regalia that would be easier to work in for hoop dancing, Pickner-Bell actually challenged herself to dance in her jingle dress to compete. She always chooses to wear dresses for her hoop dances.
"Back then, being one of the first female hoop dancers, I didn't realize how much of an impact that I would have on how things are today," she said.
Now, more women and girls are embracing hoop dancing, and it's more accessible than it once was. She didn't know it at the time, but Pickner-Bell was blazing a trail - one on which her own daughters today dance alongside her.
Pickner-Bell holds lots of titles. She was Junior Miss Crow Creek for two years, along with Miss He Sapa Win (Miss Black Hills), and first runner up at 17 for the title of Miss Indian Nations.
When she competes or exhibits as a hoop dancer, she's well known for her speeches. They are never prepared or written down; what she tells people when she dances comes straight from the heart.
"I always say I was given the gift of speaking from the Creator," she said, "because I've always been comfortable sharing my story."
When she was younger, she didn't want to talk about the darker side of things.
Today, she realizes, when she gives talks at schools and other events, that it's important to acknowledge the challenges and trauma, too, to help others know they aren't alone.
Her first relationship that began in middle school and continued for seven or eight years was an abusive one. It was like a nightmare; Pickner-Bell remembers planning escape routes for when her partner would come home, and using makeup to mask the bruises.
"I remember covering it up and thinking, 'All right, Jasmine, you've got to put on your straight face. You have to go out there and pretend like everything's great and you're not going through this.'"
She was embarrassed about what people would think if they knew she was a victim.
Long before social media and the #MeToo movement, victims were looked down upon, Pickner-Bell explained.
"I had to learn to use that hurt and that pain and bring the positive out in it through my dancing," she said.
When she was crowned Miss He Sapa Win she went on an East Coast tour, and that's when she first started feeling sick. When she came home to South Dakota, she went to the Native American women's center and learned she was pregnant with her first child. The word spread so fast that by the time she drove home, someone was there to take her crown away. Pickner-Bell was crushed.
"I was heartbroken, confused. Why do they tell us in our culture that children are gifts from the Creator but yet they're going to look down on us for having one?" she wondered. "When I gave [my crown] to them, I said, 'This crown will be for a year, but my child will be forever.'"
Being a young mother was a challenge, but Picker-Bell kept dancing, despite the cold shoulder she felt at some events. She danced through all her five pregnancies, and started dancing just a few days after each of her children were born, proving that not only could women hoop dance, but motherhood wouldn't diminish her talents.
"Just because I'm becoming a mother doesn't mean that I'm not going to be the hoop dancer I was before," she said.
Her first son fell through a third-story window of her apartment; anxious for his mom to return home from work, the 1.5-year-old boy leaned on a screen window and fell to the ground, breaking his leg. When Pickner-Bell got the call, she felt like she was having a heart attack.
But her son recovered, and after she learned that he wasn't the first, or the second or third child, who had fallen from the apartment complex's windows, she fought to make sure he'd be the last.
When she looks back, while the first half of her life included many amazing opportunities and successes, there was also a dark side. But a page was flipped when she met her husband, Justin Bell, while she was dancing at Cheyenne Frontier Days.
The lead singer of the North Bear Drum Group, he'd never seen a woman hoop dance before. The couple met in a teepee. They laugh now about how traditional it all was, but the moment sparked a friendship that has grown into a loving marriage.
Pickner-Bell moved to Riverton a dozen years ago from South Dakota and has worked hard to reestablish herself in Wyoming as a premier dancer – and her daughters, Aloysia Hoksi Wincincala ("Baby Girl") Lakota Bell, and Aliyana Joyresa Bell - are following in her hoop dancing footsteps.
Now, when they go to events, it's not just Pickner-Bell, but the "Bell Girls" that get people excited.
"I tell my kids about all of these wonderful opportunities, and explain to them how looking back, it's the love and inspiration and hard work that you put in what you love to do – that's what you're going to get out of it," Pickner-Bell said of passing on her art to her children.
For all the experiences she's had – from traveling the world, performing on "Good Morning America," staying in Mozart's castle, meeting Muhammad Ali and Kevin Costner and countless other celebrities – those lessons she's passing on to her children are what she holds most dear. Many of those experiences show "that no matter what, you put so much love and all your heart into all you love to do, and the Creator's going to open up doorways," she said.
Along with working to reestablish herself in Wyoming and helping Aloysia and Aliyana make their way, Pickner-Bell plans to compete one more time in the adult division of the World Championship Hoop Dancing Competition.
A film crew followed her to her last performance there, but their project, a movie about her life, was scuttled during Covid.
But even as she ages out of the adult class, she's not done.
"I'll be dancing for the rest of my life, until I can't dance anymore," she said. "As my children are taking over and carrying on that tradition, I've stepped back and put them in the spotlight, and now they're going to share their whole story."
This story was published on March 22, 2023.