Powwow dance fitness classes combine culture, health and wellness

Meet three First Nations women who are fancy dancing their way to fitness through programs that combine powwow moves and aerobics.

'It's nonstop, so it's a tremendous workout'

Michelle Reed is the creator of N8V Fitness which combines culture, health and wellbeing. (Michelle Reed/Facebook)

Indigenous women are fancy dancing their way to fitness through programs combining powwow moves and aerobics.

Michelle Reed is a member of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe Nation and lives in the upper peninsula of Michigan. 

Four and a half years ago, she developed N8V Dance Fitness, a workout program that combines culture, health and wellness. Since June she's been doing free online classes on Facebook because she's been unable to travel to different communities and universities to teach. 

When she started the program she wrestled with the idea of putting it online because some traditions are meant to be kept within communities. 

"I try to get everybody in the feeling that, OK, we're doing a fitness class," Reed said, adding that it's important for people to speak to their own traditional teachers and community members to know what's right when it comes to doing things in public. 

"We're working to stay healthy so when we can dance together again, then we can be ready to do these things physically." 

Dancing tied to fitness

Angela Gladue is a dancer, choreographer, educator, and emerging fashion designer from Edmonton and a member of Frog Lake First Nation.

Gladue typically tours with the DJ group A Tribe Called Red, but since the pandemic has not been on the road.

"Being at home during COVID, isolated and quarantined can be really hard mentally," said Gladue. 

"For me it is super helpful for my own mental health to have that goal every week of dancing a couple of times a week and to get me up moving and sweating."

Since the pandemic began, Gladue has done a number of online dance tutorials and livestreamed classes.

"It's definitely tied to fitness because you're doing a lot of stretches beforehand and a lot of exercises to get the body engaged and then we go into the footwork and stuff tied to the dance," she said. 

"Because there's a lot of bouncing and the drum is pretty fast, it's really good for cardio."

Cultural cardio

Cher Obediah is a member of Six Nations of the Grand River but grew up in Brantford, Ont., culturally disconnected from her Haudenosaunee roots. 

She began attending powwows and wanted to reconnect with her culture so she began taking classes with Naomi Martin from Tribal Vision Dance to learn how to be a fancy shawl dancer.

"I was always just dripping in sweat at the end of those classes," said Obediah.

"And I said to Naomi, 'Has anybody ever made an aerobics class out of this?'"

She decided to get certified as a fitness instructor and created three fitness classes: cultural cardio, fancy fit and shawl shape.

Cher Obediah is a member of Six Nations of the Grand River and created three fitness classes: cultural cardio, shawl shape and fancy fit. (Cher Obediah/ Facebook)

"I called it cultural cardio because if you're going to dance women's fancy shawl, you better have good cardio," said Obediah.

"It's nonstop, so it's a tremendous workout."

At the beginning of each class, Obediah explains that there will be five moves she'll be incorporating into the class. If you attend all three classes you'll come out knowing 15 moves.

"I really wanted to create something that was like a ground zero for people," said Obediah.

Since the pandemic began, Obediah hasn't been able to teach classes but hopes to start up again in the new year. 


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with CBC since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences.