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Changing Cultural Expectations Through Dance: Meet Two-Spirit Couple Adrian Matthias Stevens And Sean Snyder

Meet the Native American couple redefining cultural norms…

Nevada-based dancers Adrian Matthias Stevens and Sean Synder are blazing a trail in traditional Native American culture: The out couple are now regularly performing a “sweetheart’s dance” on the same pow-wow circuit that they first met on years ago.

Stevens, who is of Northern Ute, Shoshone-Bannock and San Carlos Apache heritage; and Snyder, who is of Southern Ute and Navajo heritage, are a Two-Spirit couple that have been together for seven years. Within North American Indigenous communities, Two-Spirit refers to people who possess both masculine and feminine spirits, but it can also be used to represent LGBTQ+ Indigenous people more broadly.

“It’s not biological, it’s spiritual, and it ties back to what I was taught growing up,” Stevens told Vogue in 2020. “My aunties recognized me as a Two-Spirit individual way before I even recognized it.”

When Stevens and Snyder first met, they were both dancers on Utah’s powwow circuit. Pow wows are social gatherings held by many different Native American and First Nations communities. Contemporary pow wows involve dancing competitions, singing, socializing, and other elements. The sweetheart competition, where couples show off partnered routines in hopes of winning a prize, is a frequent element of many pow wows, with cash prizes that can top $10,000. However, it took Stevens and Synder years to perform a couple routine in the sweetheart competition. That category was exclusively performed by male and female dancers until 2018, when they became the first Two-Spirit pair to do so, after being disqualified from a dance the year prior.

“Because our styles are so different, we had to find a way to dance together,” Snyder told Vogue. “And for us being two men, it was surprisingly difficult. You don’t grow up going to dances and learning to dance with another same-sex partner. We had to learn how to lead and how to take direction.”

Since then, their routines and matching regalia — each embellished with their own handmade beadwork — have brought them widespread attention. In 2019, a short documentary telling their story, Sweetheart Dancers, was shown at the PBS Short Film Festival.
Ultimately the couple hopes to inspire other young native Americans to be comfortable with their identity. They also see the potential in continuing to use sweetheart dances to rewrite the rules of what a powwow dancer can be. Snyder says powwows in general are proving to be a more inclusive and free space, especially within the sweetheart categories, which more and more Two-Spirit couples are entering. “[Some of them have] become a Dancing with the Stars–style dance competition,” says Snyder. “People get very contemporary with their movement.” However, Stevens says the work is far from over—though they look forward to continuing to be trailblazers along the way. “We’ve had triumph, some rules have changed,” says Stevens. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

You can follow Adrian Matthias Stevens on Instagram @adstevens, and Sean Synder @seanqsnyder.

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