"I STILL GET shivers during the Grand Entry when we all enter the dance floor," says Karen Pheasant, speaking of the National Powwow, which is set for this weekend at MCI Center. An estimated 800 dancers and musicians representing 250 Native American tribes from the United States and Canada will participate in this opening parade of sorts, part of a three-day event held by the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

It's a moment when time stops, says Pheasant, an Ojibway who lives on Northern Ontario's Manitoulin Island. Powwow stalwarts and newcomers alike don lovingly handmade regalia -- shells and beads, feathers, wood-carved masks and animal skins -- each reflecting a distinctive tribal culture.

The Grand Entry is but the first of many stunning tableaux in the gathering, which will also feature 45 native artisans selling fine art, jewelry, pottery and more, plus competitions offering more than $100,000 in prize money to be split among top performers.

Pheasant was on hand last year for the National Museum of the American Indian's opening processional, when a 20,000-person powwow descended upon the Mall. This year's event won't be as large; nevertheless, it's an equally significant opportunity for museum outreach. "Music and dance combine with material culture, language, spirituality and artistic expression in compelling and complex ways," says W. Richard West Jr., a member of the Southern Cheyenne and director of the museum.

These days, powwows are held year-round at events across the country on both native tribal lands and in large urban arenas. The rise of casinos on reservations has had its own effect: competitive powwow, which awards cash prizes to the best dancers. The National Powwow will recognize the best in categories such as Men and Women's Golden Age (50 and older); Men's Fancy Dance, grass and traditional; Women's Jingle Dress, Fancy Shawl and Traditional; Teens (ages 13 to 17); Juniors (ages 6 to 12); and Tiny Tots (5 and younger). Judges typically look for an elemental connection between the dancer or dancers and the song. They also look for accurate execution of movement, fluidity and grace, a strong start and a solid completion, and a fine overall presentation, which includes costuming.

But of course powwow is much more than a dance competition. Pheasant describes the powwow circuit as a complex social network of dancers, musicians and their entourages, who travel the continent performing at traditional, casino and urban powwows. "It's like one big family," she says.

First-time visitors, she advises, should not miss the Grand Entry. After that, a master of ceremonies will announce the schedule of performances and competitions. The atmosphere is informal, so don't be surprised to see participants and spectators frequently moving about the venue. Powwow is a social event, reminds Pheasant, and part of the fun is visiting old friends and making new ones.

But make no mistake -- "You will see in D.C. the creme de la creme dancers," she says. "There's excellence. . . . I don't like to use the word 'performing' for dancing. As a dance practitioner, I like to think that when a song starts, it enters my spirit, my soul, my being. I dance, and that in itself is a healing."

NATIONAL POWWOW -- Friday and Saturday 10 to 10. Sunday 10 to 8. MCI Center, 601 F St. NW. 877-830-3224 or www.americanindian.si.edu.

A powwow on the Mall in 2002. About 800 performers will be at this weekend's National Powwow at MCI Center.