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Lakota Music and Dance

The Jingle Dress
By Jim & Maureen Johnston

The jingle dress can be seen at almost every powwow across the country, and its popularity continues to grow. The intent of this article is to provide enough information for the construction of this outfit as well as an appreciation for the amount of time and work that goes into these dresses.

The information presented here was gathered from a number of sources and personal observations at pow-wows in Nebraska, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Illinois, Minnesota, and Colorado. The intention of the authors is to give their interpretation of this information and to encourage anyone wishing to make a jingle dress to do some additional research. It is impossible to describe every variation of construction in a single article.

An overall description of the jingle dress is almost impossible as there are as many variations as there are dancers. The most striking feature is the sound of the jingles which can often be heard over the bells of the male dancers and the sight of row upon row of jingles sparkling in the light as they cover the dress is dazzling. This is one dance outfit that immediately attracts the attention of not only the dancers but the spectators as well.



The jingles are made from a variety of items. The most highly desired is the Coppenhagen snuff can lid, although other brands are also used. Since metal snuff lids are increasingly difficult to obtain other options are available ..Valley tin (roof flashing) and Kerr canning lids are two other materials we have seen used. Valley tin can be purchased at most lumber yards and is sold by the yard. Kerr canning lids, which are gold in color, can be found anywhere canning supplies are sold. The "regular" size is closest in size to snuff can lids. It takes anywhere from 250 to 500 lids to make a dress depending on size and style. It should be remembered that each of these items makes a different sound; a consideration when making a dress.

Aluminum snuff can lids. plain and embossed. Jack Heriard Photo.


Everyone has their own idea of what something should look like, and Jingle Dancers are no different. Some like to roll the jingles so you can read the brand name from top to bottom. They then place them on the dress all facing the same way and a certain symmetry is achieved. Others roll them which ever way they pick them up. So there is no hard and fast rule. Also, if several people get together to roll lids each is going to shape them differently.

As for the general shape; this is a matter of personal preference. We have seen them from bell shaped with a wide flare at the bottom to ones that are pencil thin with a very neat appearance. The best thing to do is to look at a lot of dresses and find a style that you like. Remember, however, the thinner they are the more you will need.

To roll and shape the lids you will need a long, eight inch, needle nose pliers and a pair of work gloves. The lip of the lid can be trimmed off with a pair of tin snips or common household scissors that you no longer intend to use for anything else (FIGURE 1). This does leave a sharp edge, so the use of gloves for rolling is recommended. It does not matter if you roll to the right or left. Place the pliers on one side of the lid and roll it around the pliers (FIGURES 3, 4,5). As it can be difficult to roll a circle into a cone shape, we have seen a slice taken off one side, then rolled (FIGURE 2). At this point the excess can be left in place or trimmed off. Now you are ready to fine tune the shape of your jingle. If you prefer, the lip can be left on by pressing it flat with the pliers. On Kerr lids, there is a rubber seal and this also can be removed or left in place. But remember the more lids you use the heavier the dress becomes, so the trimming of even a little on each lid does make an overall difference in weight.

It does take a little practice to get the lids the way you like them so it's best to take a few and keep rolling and re-rolling until you find the method that works best for you.

Cobbler - Style Apron

FIGURE 6 (below)- Made to be worn over a dress, this style is basically a large piece of material to fit from shoulder to hem in front and back. There is an opening so it can be slid over the wearer's head, with tie strings at the waist. It can be worn over different under-dresses giving the wearer several outfits from a single apron. Jeff Frye Illustration

Photos 1 & 2 - Cobbler-style apron jingle dresses.


Almost any type of light to medium weight fabric such as cotton or taffeta can be used with solid colors being the most popular. Occasionally fabric with a small overall print or a jacquard (design of the same color woven into the fabric such as a green on green print) are seen. A combination of colors can also be used on one dress to compliment or accent each other. A study of the photos will give you a sense of colors and the look that you want to achieve. The fabric should be sturdy enough to hold the jingles. Lining with a light weight fabric is recommended for durability.


The styles of the dresses can be divided into several general catagories. The first we will discuss is a cobbler-style apron that is made to be worn over a dress. Basically it is a large piece of material to fit from the shoulder to the hem of the dress in the front and back. There is an opening so it can be slid over the wearer's head, and has tie strings at the waist to hold it in place. This can be worn over different under dresses giving you several outfits from a single apron. (FIGURE 6, PHOTO 1- dancer '503' & PHOTO 2 ).

Cobbler-style apron (blue) with pyramid designs for cones. This dancer wears a fully beaded yoke with fringe over her yellow blouse and light blue skirt.

It should be noted at this point that some time during the powwow you will have to sit down. To solve that problem the apron of course can be pulled up in the back. Most of the dresses work on the same principal. The skirt either fits over the dress and can be slid up so that sitting becomes possible or an apron is utilized.

The second style is a dress with under-skirt (FIGURE 7). On this dress the top is decorated with jingles and ribbon. The dress then has a second skirt over the first that fits much like a stove pipe, with the outer skirt holding the jingles and decorations. (PHOTO 3)

FIGURE 7 - This dress is decorated with jingles and ribbon. The dress then has a second skirt over the first that fits much like a stove pipe, with the outer skirt holding the jingles and decorations.

Dresses with under-skirt

The third basic style is to make a dress with a flap attached to the back skirt area (FIGURE 8). This can then be lifted up to allow the wearer to sit down. (PHOTO 4 - dancers on left)

PHOTO 4 - Flap dresses worn by the two dancers on the left.

These are the three general types of dresses with everything else being variations. While we can't list every variation we will describe the ones we have seen most often. A variation of the cobbler apron is aprons worn from the waist down. They are two seperate pieces of material that either tie at the waist or have a casing at the top for a belt to slide through (PHOTO 5).

PHOTO 5 - A variation of the cobbler apron is aprons worn from the waist down. They are two separate pieces of material that either tie at the waist or have a casing at the top for a belt to slide through.

Vests and capes (FIGURE 9 &PHOTO 6) made of material then decorated with jingles and ribbon are sometimes worn with the aprons for a different look (PHOTO 7). These generally slip over the head but a few have been seen that snap or zip up the front or back. The use of beaded capes is occasionally seen with these dresses. This seems to be the exception rather than the rule. In PHOTO 8 you can see one with jingles hanging from the cape like fringe. The use of beaded capes may be the transition of women from Fancy Dancing to Jingle Dancing. Wearing aprons, vests and capes with under dresses gives the appearance of several different outfits simply by changing the underdress. A study of the photos will also show ribbon work, felt applique, sequined designs and beadwork being used by several dancers to make their outfits unique and add a personal touch.

PHOTO 6 is a cape made of material and decorated with jingles and ribbon and can be worn with the aprons and differenct under dresses for a different look (PHOTO 7 Below).

PHOTO 7 Author Maureen Johnston models the cape and apron picutred above showing their versatility by simply changing the under dress and accessories. The use of beaded capes with jingled 'fringe'

PHOTO 8 may be a transition from women shawl dancing to jingle dancing.


The actual construction of the dress depends on two things, personal style preference and how good a seamstress you are. The underdresses are usually made in the traditional woman's 'T' shape. This does not require a great deal of skill as it is mostly straight lines and seams with the exception of the neck opening. The sleeve length varies from short to wrist length and everything in between. The seam can be sewn closed or left open. The hem line on the sleeve can be left straight or cut into a 'V' or curve to give it a little added character. If you choose to make a dress with the jingles sewn directly on it, as opposed to using aprons and vests, your choice of styles are endless. You are only limited by how well you can sew and your creativity. These dresses usually have a definite waist line made either by using darts or a casing with elastic inside. The sleeves can be any length and vary from a simple straight line to one that is set in and has a pretty feminine puff (PHOTO 9 - dancer far right). The body of the dress can be decorated with contrasting yoke and/or inserts on the skirt area. Collars and the use of zippers, buttons etc., are also seen with this style. The colors run the full gamut from the primary ones to pretty pastels. If you are not skilled enough to make your own dress pattern you can purchase a regular dress pattern in a fabric store and alter it as desired. At this point you are now ready to begin sewing on the ribbon! ricrac trims and jingles. No matter which dress you choose the hem should fall somewhere between two inches below the knee to mid-calf.



The patterns for sewing jingles onto the outfit are almost endless. The most common used shapes are V's, W's, and U's. We have also seen spirals, zig-zags (PHOTO 10), straight lines and various combinations of them all. They should be placed close enough so that they just about touch when standing still. The sound is made by the jingles hitting against each other when dancing or walking. There is nothing inside the jingles to make this distinctive sound.

PHOTO 10 showing the variety of sleeve styles and jingle patterns.


Bias tape, grosgrain ribbon or fabric strips are used to hold the jingles to the dress. But by far the most common and easiest to work with is double-fold bias tape (PHOTO 11). It does not fray or need additional sewing. As for color, some will match it to the dress or the ribbons while others will use a contrasting color. The bias tape should be cut into strips about three to four inches long. A knot is then tied into one end. This is then slid through the jingle so that the knot is inside and the bias tape sticks out of the top. The top of the jingle is then crimped tightly closed with a pair of pliers to hold the bias tape in place. Some dancers like to sew each jingle in place individually and then cover it with ribbon, while others prefer to sew them to a strip of ribbon then stitch that onto the dress.

PHOTO 11 - Rolled jingles with 3 to 4 inch bias tape, knotted on one end and slipped through the top of the cone. This allows for the cones to be attached to the dress material.

To add additional color and decoration to the dress, rows of ribbon or ric-rac are sewn above the rows of jingles. A review of the photos and drawings will show this on the dresses.


We now come to the point of determining what is worn with the dress. There is a wide variety of accessories depending on tribal origins and the wearer's own personal choice


All types of moccasins are seen, fully beaded, partially beaded, quilled and sequined. Some dancers wear boots as seen on the northern plains among the Crow and Rocky Boy Cree.


Either traditional style or modern leggings are worn. They can be fully beaded in appliqué or lazy stitch, partially beaded and occasionally sequined. Obviously, if boots are worn, then leggings are not.


Beaded belts of every type are used as well as conch and tack belts. Some dancers wear leather belts that are tooled and painted to match their beadwork. A nice added touch is a matching beaded buckle. Draggers and belt pouch sets are not worn with this outfit.


A lot of the dancers wear these to match the rest of their beadwork. All the ones we have seen are smaller than men's cuffs. Some have fringe, but most do not.


If a bag is carried it is in the left hand. They often match the outfit but that does not seem to be necessary. They are just about every size and shape and are utilitarian as well as decorative. Check the photos for ideas.


An eagle wing or tail fan is always carried and this is in the right hand. The fan is a very important part of the outfit and its use will be discussed under dancing.


Two types of scarfs are seen. The first is worn around the neck and may contrast with the outfit or match it. It may also match the ribbons or beadwork. Sometimes a simple bandana is used. A second scarf may be carried in the left hand, if desired. Here again it may be decorative and may or may not match the neck scarf.


To hold the neck scarf in place german silver tie slides, conch shells, beaded slides, pow-wow buttons and almost anything you can think of can be used. A lot of dancers use an extra barrette which has the advantage that it will not slide off while dancing.


One braid worn down the back seems to be the most common and popular hair style. A large barrette is worn at the top of this braid. Protruding from the top of this is a single feather or a few eagle fluffs. The bottom of the braid can be left plain, have a small barrette or long leather fringe hanging from it. Other small barrettes are worn to keep the hair in place as needed on the sides of the head.

Two braids worn in the front are seen on some dancers but they seem to be in the minority. Here again we see a large barrette worn in the back of the head with a feather or fluffs, and small barrettes to keep the hair neat. Beaded braid wraps are usually worn with the style.

In PHOTO 12 you will see a dancer wearing fur drops from her braids. As you look at the other photos you will note that this does not seem to be a common practice and, in fact, this is the only example we have ever seen.


French braiding of the hair is also very popular and is used on both the back single braid or front double braids. 1990 saw quite a few dancers wearing an additional and unique barrett. This barrett sits on top of the head just above the left ear. It is about 4-1/2 inches long by 1 inch wide with a forked end and is curved to match the shape of the wearer's head. On some, a bead fringe about two inches long is hung from the forked end (PHOTO 13)



Dancing is not something that can be learned from articles or books. It must be seen and practiced. Dancing is not only foot movements but movement of the body as a whole. To try and accurately describe how to put this all together is a task well beyond the abilities of the authors. You need to go to powwows and observe the jingle dancers and learn from them. For those who live in areas where there are no jingle dancers as yet, there are a number of videos available from some of the traders. These videos were taken at major powwows which include jingle dress dancing. We will try to give you a basic idea without geuing overly technical. It should be noted that jingle dress dancing is a traditional rather than a fancy style of dancing. A traditional woman's dance step is used when just moving around the dance floor and visiting with friends or while resting during a long intertribal. While doing this, no fancy steps are used. This is not a step that is used in competition. During intertribal songs a two beat step is used, similar to a man's traditional step. The footwork is kept low to the ground and is very fluid. All the other dance steps are variations of this one. A shuffle step, which is basically reversing places with your feet, is one simple variation. Backing up is accomplished by switching from the basic step to one or two back-up steps then advancing forward again. There are no spins, kicks or flashy movements as seen in fancy shawl dancing. The jingle style is smooth and soft. It appears to be flowing and graceful rather than athletic. Easy half turns and a series of "S" shapes are used to advance around the dance arena. After you have become proficient in the basic steps, observing other dancers combined with your own creativity will give you a variety of dance steps.

The basic body posture is straight and erect. The left hand is placed on the hip holding a scarf and/or bag, if one is carried. The right hand holds the fan and is held in a comfortable positiond close to the hip. The fan becomes important during the honor beats. As they are struck, the fan is raised, then waved or rolled toward the dancer. Here again this is an easy, flowing motion. The usage of the fan in this manner is only done while doing the jingle step or during a slide song (this will be discussed further on). When a dancer is doing the traditional step, a sneak-up or a Crow hop, the fan is not used as described above, but simply carried. We have seen jingle dancers participate in Crow hops and sneak-ups. During a crow hop the step in no different than that used by other traditional women dancers. In the sneak-up, during the ruffle phase of the song, the dancers just stand and wait. During the intertribal phase the jingle step is used.

Now for the slide song. This is without a doubt one of the most unique dance styles to watch. The song structure still has a lead, second, chorus and tail. The beat can best be described as a very fast round dance, with a defmite loud/soft beat. All the slide songs we have heard have had four to six honor beats in the first line of the tail. Some drums will sing the song through 4 or 6 times, then stop. Others will sing 4 or 6 times, stop, then sing only the tail and stop again, thereby ending the song. Slide songs are almost always contest or exhibition songs. At some powwows they will ask for 4 push-ups while others will ask for 6. The singing of a formal tail is left to the discretion of the singers.

To begin the slide, the dancers will position themselves around the dance arena facing toward the center. The purpose is to move sideways around the arena in time with the song. The feet do the majority of the work with the body following along. There are a variety of ways in which this is accomplished. Every dancer has her own favorite step and we will try to give you an idea of a few of them. But again we encourage you to observe jingle dancers in action. The left hand is placed on the hip and the feet are placed side by side, a comfortable distance apart. Now, you are going to shift your body weight from the balls of your feet to the heels while sliding your feet along the floor to the left (FIGURE 11). This is repeated over and over during the song. Don't be stiff legged. Relax your knees and let the body flow with the movement. This also enables the jingles to sway sideways causing a "shushing" sound. Another variation is similar to the round dance step but keeping your feet close to the ground. Here again, during the honor beats the fan is raised and waived or rolled. We have asked several dancers and singers the reason for the raising of the fan. Many had no idea other than it is the style. Others, however, stated that it was to honor Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit or to remember relations who have passed on and are with Him.


We can't emphasize enough that this article is only to provide some basic information on these outfits. Additional research should be done by anyone wishing to make a jingle dress. As you can see from reading Louis Garcia's article "A Short History of the Jingle Dress" in this issue, there are differences in the outfit and dance style from one part of the country to another. These articles do not contradict each other but verify the importance of further research.

The powwow culture seems to be more alive and vibrant today than it has ever been. Outfits and dance styles are constantly changing and attention needs to be paid to this fact. There are more and more jingle dresses seen at powwows each time. It is an outfit with a lot of tradition and should be worn with dignity and pride. The program from "Red Earth 89" describes jingle dress dancing very well: "This is an example of a very old dance which held a very spiritual meaning, though that meaning is somewhat clouded by time. The jingle dress is not only very colorful but provides much of the musical accompaniment for the dance. Few dances can match the sheer brilliance of costume and sound of the jingle dress dance. Dance steps and body movements which are not in time to the music are easily detected because of the music of the dress itself. Pride and grace is demanded in the attitude of the dancer, a certain reverence should be exhibited."

Jingle Dress Update-1992

Since this article was written in 1991, there have been a few changes worth noting. The major ones are in the hairstyle and dress itself. While the single french hair braid is still the most popular, the wearing of double front braids and the hair loose are seen more frequently. The barrettes are still worn no matter which hairstyle is worn. The other noticeable changes have come in the dress. They are much more elaborately decorated with the use of chainette or buckskin fringe anywhere from one to eight inches long. The fringe is often sewn on first then the jingles and ribbon trim are sewn on top so that the jingles and fringe fall together. Fringe can also be sewn along the sleeve seam (top photo below), the sleeve bottom or from shoulder to waist. Long ribbon streamers are also seen hanging from small conchos, pins, beaded rosettes and even from inside the jingles. The spaces between the rows of jingles are often filled in with ribbon work (lower photo), lace, rows of bead work or fabric appliques. While an occasional sequined set is seen with these dresses, it is still the exception rather than the rule.

Jingle dress showing buckskin fringe tied onto silver conchos which are then sewn in place down the length of the sleeve.

Dancer # 961 has ribbonwork on her skirt and sleeves. Dancer # 984 has ribbonwork on her dress and buckskin fringe attached.

As with most dance clothes, styles are constantly changing and the jingle dress is no exception. It is still a very popular outfit and will undoubtedly continue to change and evolve over time.

Seneca Powwow July 21-22, 2012, Jackie Bowen Jingle Dress finalists.

Old Style Jingle Dress is a dance style which is rarely done on the pow wow circuit by younger dancers. Many are drawn to the more contemporary style of dance, which has dancers doing fast exciting foot work similar to Ladies Fancy Shawl Dance. In old style, the dancers use no feathers, do not carry a purse only have but a single scarf in their hand. This style is well respected on the pow wow circuit today, as well as many of the old style traditional dances.

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