World champion hoop dancer takes his ninth title

Nakotah LaRance was a world championship hoop dancer whose artistry and looks magnetized crowds and led to an acting career and a three-year stint with Cirque du Soleil.

Nakotah LaRance didn’t say goodbye.

After spending an idyllic day with his family in Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo on Saturday, LaRance emerged from his room and quietly left his parents' home around midnight.

“He was walking out the front door talking to somebody on the phone and then that’s when he just walked out of our life,” his father, Steve LaRance, recalled Tuesday.

“It was his destiny to walk on at that time,” he said.

Nakotah LaRance, a world championship hoop dancer whose dazzling artistry and good looks magnetized crowds and led to an acting career and a three-year stint with Cirque du Soleil, died in a climbing accident early Sunday when he fell off a bridge near his home, his father said.

LaRance was 30.

“The hoop dance is a healing dance, so now he’s dancing across the sky with his hoops healing the world,” his father said.

Nakotah’s sudden passing, however, has left his family, a community of hoop dancers, and fans throughout Northern New Mexico and across the nation in mourning.

A Facebook post by Steve LaRance announcing his son’s death as of Tuesday afternoon had generated more than 3,500 comments and had been shared more than 3,400 times. Steve LaRance’s Facebook page also was filled with condolence messages and pictures of his son from people around the world.

“Nakotah LaRance was such a tremendous talent with an enormous, generous heart,” Christy Vezolles, a trustee at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, which hosts the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest, wrote in one of the posts. “Nakotah is so beloved and will be missed by so many.”

In recent years, Nakotah LaRance had turned his focus to teaching Native youth the art of hoop dancing, which Vezolles said ensures “his legacy will live on infinitely.”

‘He had boundless energy’

Nakotah LaRance was born Aug. 23, 1989, in a remote town at the tip of Alaska. He was a strong baby who used to cling to his mother, Marian Denipah-LaRance, his father said.

“Even when she changed his diaper,” Steve LaRance recalled, “he was always hanging onto her.”

When Nakotah was still a boy, the family moved to Flagstaff, where he grew up.

“He had boundless energy, and he was interested in everything in the world,” his father said.

He was introduced to the world of hoop dance around the age of 4 or 5.

“He traveled the ‘powwow trail’ with my sister, and that’s how he met his hoop dance mentor, Derrick Davis,” Steve LaRance said.

Davis, a seven-time hoop dance world champion, told the Arizona Republic Nakotah LaRance learned to hoop dance by watching others.

“We were dancing till it was late, but Nakotah went to bed early, and he would sneak into my camper and grab my hoops,” said Davis, who told the newspaper he made the youngster his own set of hoops.

Nakotah LaRance won his first world championship at age 12 and went on to win nine in all.

“He loved movement,” his father said. “He liked the challenge of the hand-eye coordination, being able to throw the hoops, catch them, manipulate them.”

Dancing was ‘his first love’

In 2004, LaRance caught the attention of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

“They were looking for the most interesting person in Arizona,” his father said. “He auditioned against a whole bunch of different, talented people.”

Two weeks later, LaRance got a call from NBC informing him that he had been selected as the winner.

“We were surprised and shocked because my wife, at first, when they asked us to go audition, she was like, ‘Ah, they probably won’t know what the hoop dance means. It’s really not worth it.’ But against her opinion, I went and took him down,” Steve LaRance said. “We did the audition, and two weeks later, we were flying to Hollywood.”

The exposure Nakotah received on the popular late-night television show led to other opportunities.

“That opened the doors for him for film and television and shortly thereafter, he was cast in a Steven Spielberg [miniseries], Into the West, which was filmed here in New Mexico,” Steve LaRance said.

Nakotah LaRance also appeared in Longmire and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

“In 2009, he was approached by Cirque du Soleil because they had seen one of his performances on the internet,” his father said. “He auditioned, and they wound up selecting him to be the principal dancer” in Totem, a touring show by Cirque du Soleil.

Steve LaRance said his son traveled the world with Totem for three years.

“He loved dancing more than he loved acting,” he said. “His first love was always dancing.”

After his family moved from Arizona to New Mexico, Nakotah LaRance joined them in 2013. While he continued to perform, including as the opening dancer at the Pan American Games in Toronto in 2015, he wanted to start giving back to the community, his father said.

“He had these gigs on different weekends where he’d fly out, but his passion then became teaching the youth, the Native American youth, how to do the hoop dance and to take pride in their culture,” Steve LaRance said, adding his son started the Pueblo of Pojoaque Youth Hoop Dancers, which morphed into the Lightning Boy Foundation after the death of one of his students, Valentino Tzigiwhaeno Rivera. The boy, who was known as Tino, died in May 2016 at age 8 from injuries suffered in a car crash about a year earlier.

“When 4-year-old Valentino first saw Nakotah perform hoop dance at the Poeh Center in Pojoaque, it was easy to see that he was mesmerized by the dance and Nakotah’s style,” said Felicia Rosacker-Rivera, Tino’s mother. “Nakotah was a thin, wiry, long-haired young Pueblo man, so I think Valentino, having those same traits, felt confident that he could aspire to be like him as he grew up.”

The youngster was a natural at hoop dancing and developed a strong bond with Nakotah LaRance, who doted on Valentino.

“When Tino was critically injured in the car accident and became disabled, Nakotah and Tino’s commitment to their friendship never wavered,” Rosacker-Rivera said. “Nakotah tried to be with Tino as much as he could, even bringing Tino his 2016 adult World Hoop Dance Championship trophy when Tino was too injured to attend.”

After Valentino died, Rosacker-Rivera said her family and Steve and Nakotah LaRance “were motivated to start branching off into a new group that honored Tino’s life and love of dance.”

‘A beautiful last day’

Nakotah LaRance became a “master teacher” with the foundation.

“As our dancers practice, perform [and] compete, we often hear people say they can see Nakotah’s style in their dance — and you can,” Rosacker-Rivera said. “You can also see all of the confidence that is built up by having a master teacher with Nakotah’s commitment to youth, positivity and culture. There will never be another Nakotah LaRance in this world.”

Della Warrior, director of the Santa Fe-based Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, said in an email that Nakotah LaRance was an inspiration to students who grasped his unique talent.

“You could tell from the faces and smiles of the young people that were Nakotah’s students that they were in awe,” she wrote. “He was their role model and the person that motivated them to want to hoop dance.”

David Roche, director and CEO of the Heard Museum, said in a statement the museum mourned the “tragic loss” of LaRance, whom he called a beloved member of the community.

“The memory of his dazzling artistry in the hoop dance arena is a gift to all of us that had the good fortune to see him perform, but his legacy as a teacher to countless Native youth is what will ensure that his legacy lives on,” he said.

Though Nakotah LaRance didn’t say goodbye when he walked out the door Saturday night, Steve LaRance said his family has had some level of closure and peace because they had “a beautiful last day” with his son. The family enjoyed a barbecue, watched UFC fights and played in the water in the Rio Grande on Saturday.

“He was very, very happy on his last day,” he said. “He was so joyful.”

Steve LaRance said he laid his son to rest Tuesday, and the family plans to hold a memorial in the future. He said people can “continue his life’s work” by making donations to the Lightning Boy Foundation.

“I want him to be remembered as a humble, generous, caring young man who had embraced life, lived it to the fullest and shared his Native culture through dance, film and just being a very unique, special, one-of-a-kind human being,” his father said.

Nakotah LaRance is survived by his parents, sisters Nizhoni Denipah and Shandien LaRance, brother Cree LaRance, and numerous aunts and uncles.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

(5) comments

Eslee Kessler

A huge loss. he was a brilliant talent.. so very sad for us all.

Vickie Ortega

Have seen the youngsters from Lightning Boy Foundation dance and they are really good. Kudos to Nakotah for his dedication to the youth and teaching them the dance. May he rest in peace.

Hills Snyder


Prince Michael Jauregui

My sincere condolences to the Family, Friends and Loved-ones of Nakotah Larance. Undoubtedly, his devoted contributions to his community are a lasting monument.

Another well-written story, Mr. Chacon.

Pam Walker

Oh my, what a beautiful man. My heart goes out to his family and friends.

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