Thoughts Akimbo

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The day I danced

It was almost midnight. At the far end of the party, a large dance studio stood empty. Someone had turned down the lights and turned up the World Music. Strong African rhythms vibrated just beneath our breastbones and sent tendrils down the backs of our legs.

One by one, people wandered in and stared at the empty dance floor. Colored lights flashed in lonely rainbows. And then a woman with a long, dancer’s body and fuzzy, brown hair walked out to the middle of the room. She half-closed her eyes, and bit her lower lip, listening. We watched as her hips began to move, ever so slightly, until her lower body had established a subtle, complex circular pattern. In another moment, the pattern had swept her feet into the act. And she began to dance.

Her long arms hung loose at first, her fingers tapping an imaginary drum skin. And then her arms, too, were drawn into the dance. She swayed and stepped to the throb of the conga drums. The circle of rhythm surrounding her became magnetic, pulling those who watched closer and closer.

Another woman, wearing a leotard and a flowing skirt, strode confidently out onto the floor; she positioned herself a few feet from the first dancer, and picked up her rhythm. She was a little more aggressive in style. Her feet rose higher and stamped down with more authority. “This, this rhythm!” her body said. The first dancer smiled and spun, her arms painting curved patterns in the air.

More people were entering the room now, and all along the walls, women began to remove their shoes. Within moments, six more women had taken the floor, and then ten more. As newcomers crowded the doorway, the barefoot women danced their patterns, with smiles that were at first shy and then became euphoric.

“I don’t dance,” I murmured to my daughter. I have always been body-shy and clumsy–not a confident physical being. I’m certainly not a dancer. But this time, I didn’t let myself think. I wanted to feel what the dancers felt. Overtaken by some unknown courage, I shook off my jacket and walked out onto the dance floor.

I stood, surrounded by a swirl of skirts and limbs and smiles, feeling the rhythm. I saw how they did it, their hips leading the way. I felt my left hip swing forward in a little circle, pulled by the timbali’s loud bong. Then my right hip described its own circle in response, exactly on the snare’s high snap. Bong snap, bong bong, snap. I let my hips move loosely now from side to side, my palms pressed against my thighs. The movement felt good, smooth, like my heart beating. I lifted my arms and let them move, too. The music pounded and popped. Instinct flexed my knees and drew my hips around in circles, and soon my feet were moving, sliding in joyful cadence. The drums pushed me back and I danced forward to meet them, again and again.

The music spoke of green leaves and humid air on warm brown skin, impossibly tall trees and a high, luminous moon. We were tropical, sub-Saharan, tribal, primitive, and beautiful beneath that moon. Some of the men at the party were pulled in by this energy, but they stood apart from us, leaning against the walls, smiling in amazement. Some of our husbands were out there. These men were witnessing what a woman could be, I thought. I looked across my shoulders one at a time and shrugged to the beat of the music.

We began to dance each other’s moves. I saw a woman who appeared to be stretching her arms out toward an imaginary lover, and I let my arms do the same. Another turned around slowly, led by one softly gyrating hip, and I began to spin. A cloud of warm scent rose from our bodies, soap and perfume and shampoo mingling with the floor polish beneath us and cigarette smoke wafting in from just outside the door. The fragrance affirmed us and intoxicated us.

Something extraordinary was taking place. We breathed together in time with the drums’ pervasive chant, we smiled, we twirled. This was female energy at its most primal level. We were not just dancing, we were women dancing.

I looked across the floor at our bare feet. There was something sensuous about the skin of our soles touching and releasing that polished wood, our toes caressed by gravity and then pulling free of it. But this was not an act of striving toward pleasure–it was pleasure itself, achieved, shared, and reveled in.

I felt my body reach the wall of physical limitation and then soar over that wall. I needed oxygen. I kept dancing. I knew I must slow down. But I could not slow down. The rhythm pushed and I pushed back, and I could not stop my left hip from meeting the timbali, my right from greeting the snare.

My own daughter, who was a young teenager right at the leading edge of womanhood, watched as I danced to her again and again, trying to motion her to her feet. The raw energy of the dance embarrassed her at first, I think. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. But a moment later, she found her courage, and there she was, dancing in front of me, smiling broadly, her own body pulled and pushed by the drumbeats. Our moves were graceful, honest, and unapologetic. Our bodies felt the same.

A Kindergarten-aged girl ran over to her dancing mother and watched us, enthralled and delighted. She was inspired by our grace, as we were by her unbridled enthusiasm. She jumped and let her limbs fly wildly. Our limbs drew wider arcs in response.

My daughter seemed to fall into a trance, following intricacies beyond description with her feet, her hands, her hips. She had become an elfen spirit. The brown-haired woman who had first taken the floor had transformed into a Maori warrior. And me … sometimes I was a Flamenco dancer, one arm crooked up, the other palm resting on my belly. Sometimes I was a tribal princess, dipping down, letting my hips pull my torso forward to punctuate the end of a rhythm phrase. The mirrors along the far wall showed swaying bodies and bare, flashing limbs. We were the many fingers of a supreme being, undulating and beckoning.

I was exhausted, my breath ragged, my hands and feet tingling, but I could not stop dancing. My body had become a long, flexible stalk, loose, moving in time. A light blanket of sweat covered my skin and the air felt suddenly chilly, but so much heat pounded out through my heart, I was ablaze within the icy room.

I reached up to push my damp hair back, and even that became a part of the dance. Every gesture, every movement was a comment on the music. I tried to slow down and breathe more deeply, to feel the exhilaration of dancing beyond my own limits, beyond all reason. The air felt thick with joy and scent and sound.

Some women had begun to drop out now, sinking onto the chairs, inhaling deeply and slowly, closing their eyes. The remaining dancers had grown wilder still, snapping their heads back and forth to the beat, leaping up into the air like shamans frightening away evil spirits, glorying in the power of the dance.

The tiny girl spun and spun until her mother had to pick her up to still her frenzy. I reached out to my daughter, and together we moved, still in time to the rhythm, but dancing now toward our shoes and chairs and rest. The music pulsed on.
The remaining women became more exaggerated in their movements, as if they were absorbing all the magic we had left behind out there on the dance floor. They watched themselves in the mirrors, amazed at their metamorphosis into wild-haired, magical beings.

And then, with a loud roll of drums ending in a sharp pop, the music stopped.

A soft, melodic hum of delight rose from the women in the room, a high-pitched, single tone of triumph. We smiled at each other and wiped our brows and retied our shoes.

It was after midnight now. While we had danced, one day had transformed into the next. We were secret goddesses who had created the new day with our shared celebration of drum and spirit and heartbeat, dancing to the pulse of life.

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