Wearing brightly coloured regalia, James Jones dances into the frame, wielding three hoops on each arm. His feet hop to the upbeat synths of The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights.” The hoops are an extension of his body, transforming into the wings of a bird and then quickly into a sphere.
Last April, the 34-year-old traditional hoop dance artist posted his version of the "Blinding Lights" challenge on TikTok. It was the early months of the pandemic, so like many of us stuck inside, Jones turned to the social media platform out of boredom. He woke up the next day a viral sensation with the video amassing 500,000 views overnight. It currently has over two million views.
“I didn’t know how to react,” Jones—better known by his TikTok handle Notorious Cree—tells Complex Canada. “Honestly, I was kind of freaked out.”
Now, with over 2 million followers on TikTok, Jones uses his platform to elevate Indigenous representation in the media—something that he never saw as a kid.
“All of the people I idolized were non-Indigenous people in the media,” he says. “I definitely would have loved to see more people like me growing up.”
From the Tallcree First Nation in Alberta, Jones started out as a breakdancer when he was a teenager. He met Indigenous breakdancers who took him to a powwow where he was exposed to traditional dancing. It wasn’t until Jones was about 20 years old when friend and mentor Sage Romero, a hoop dancer from California, began teaching him the style.
“All of the people I idolized were non-Indigenous people in the media. I definitely would have loved to see more people like me growing up.”
“I started practicing a lot and I really enjoyed the meaning behind the dancing,” says Jones.
Hoop dancing was originally performed at Indigenous healing ceremonies. Now, it’s performed at powwows and cultural events. The hoops are symbols of the circle of life and dancers use them to tell the story of life’s changes and transitions. Jones says he never fully choreographs his routines, opting to improvise a lot of his moves, and is constantly practicing to be able to do this.
Jones has come a long way from his first dance performance—which never happened. “I [hid] in the bathroom,” he says. “I had low self-esteem when I was younger.”
Ultimately, dance gave him confidence and brought him closer to his culture. He paid this forward as a fitness instructor, creating powwow dance fitness videos on Youtube. With a degree in social work, he also taught dance to Indigenous youth as part of a “healing through the arts” program.
Before his online fame, Jones was hoop dancing on stages all over the world. He performed at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, at the Coachella Music Festival, and at the Sydney Opera House in 2015. Most notably, he danced for Juno-winning Indigenous EDM group A Tribe Called Red on their world tour.
Even during a pandemic, Jones is able to educate and perform for millions of people across the world through TikTok. From the comfort of his home in Edmonton, he has taught viewers about the different styles of Indigenous dances (and what Hogwarts house they’d be) and about the importance of long, braided hair in Indigenous culture through his hair teachings.
"I think it's important for young people to see that there's somebody like [them] who comes from a place [they] come from,” he says. “Who's been through the things [they’ve] been through, who are succeeding and doing well.”
Jones’ success on the platform has opened up many doors. In December, he was featured on giant digital billboards at Toronto’s Dundas Square for TikTok Canada’s inaugural ad campaign, “It starts on TikTok." He’s a Nike N7 influencer and has sponsorships with Aldo and Abercrombie and Fitch. He has also been able to work with TikTok’s diversity team where he collaborates with a group of BIPOC content creators on projects.
Jones is a part of a community of Indigenous influencers who are ensuring youth see themselves in the media. He’s teamed up on dance videos with other prominent Indigenous content creators like Tia Wood and Nikita Elyse.
The positive impact their content has had on young people is clear through the feedback Jones has received. Followers have reached out expressing how they want to try hoop dancing, growing out their hair, and learning more about their language. “To me, that’s one of the most rewarding things I can get from making content.”