October 5, 2011

Keeping the pace lively: The job of an emcee

For the last 16 years, our local tribe of Chumash Indians has held an inter-tribal pow wow. Native Americans come from all over the country to participate in the celebration of native culture with dance and drum competitions, music, a healing circle, storytelling, food, and arts and crafts. The event is spread over two days and, as you can imagine, there is a lot of downtime in between dances and ceremonies. Enter Tom Phillips, perennial emcee.

I am constantly impressed with how Tom keeps the audience entertained and informed, while rolling with the unpredictability of a live two-day event with hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators.

Sometimes there's a delay in the proceedings. One of the dance or drum judges might be held up on the other side of the arena, or there's a wait while the dancers take their place to start the competition. Gifts are given, people are honored, the dusty arena might need to be watered down and swept, there might be a lost child (and there was -- identified with the description "She's holding a nectarine, a bottle of water, and some Funyuns"), and Tom manages to keep the pace lively.

Here are some of the techniques I've witnessed Tom using to keep the audience and participants from drifting off during the lulls.

1. Use observational humor

Tom can always find something amusing in a delay. As one woman in a wheelchair carried a folding chair across the arena, Tom made the comment, "So-and-so has a nice chair for sale." So it's not hilarious, and he's not a comedian. But he's observant, and is always able to amuse the audience with whatever is happening at the moment.

2. Keep the audience informed

One of Tom's strengths as an announcer is his depth of knowledge of native culture and his ability to educate those of us sitting outside the arena in an interesting and engaging way. I never feel like I'm at school or being lectured to while Tom explains the intricacies of gift-giving or the meanings of songs or the history of the use of various flags in the Grand Entry. His style is conversational and informal, and he's always got a new tidbit I haven't heard before.

3. Be humble

One thing I love about Tom's emceeing is that it's never about him. He has a smooth, made-for-radio voice and the ability to talk and talk and talk, but I never get the feeling he's talking just to hear himself. He always advances the agenda of the day, not focusing on himself and how entertaining he can be, but rather how he can make this the best experience for all involved. He comes across as sincere, approachable, friendly, human, and modest.

4. Be prepared

It almost goes without saying (but I'm going to say it) that Tom is prepared like crazy. He knows what the schedule should be and he's ready to make announcements, introduce dancers and honorees (read about head gourd dancer Saginaw Grant here), remind drum groups to check in and take care of all the other mundane administration of the pow wow.

Being an emcee is hard work. It's a constant effort to make sure things are running smoothly and that the audience doesn't get bored or feel disconnected from the proceedings. Tom Phillips is a true expert in the art of emceeing, and I look forward to hearing him again next year!

Take a few minutes to check out my short video of the recent pow wow's Grand Entry. This will give you a taste of some of the different styles of songs, a little bit of dancing, and some beautiful regalia. There are a couple more previous videos in my Powwow playlist as well. And here's some basic info on powwows with a little explanation of the Grand Entry.

Here's some information on our local band of Chumash Indians, if you're interested.

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