Many Steps, One Dance
Wells Harbor Park, Wells, Maine. Sunday 21 July, 2013
Not enough fluffy clouds high in the sky. Brilliant, brilliant sun, ninety degrees of temperature or more.
The ground underfoot is gravel, white and crunchy, a mirror throwing the sunlight back up in your face.
Some men are bare-chested, some wear ribbon shirts. One wears a bear head and skin over his skull and down his shoulders. Many wear silver bells tied in bands around their ankles.
Most of the women carry shawls of varying degrees of thickness and decoration either wrapped around their shoulders or wafted like iridescent wings marking their movements. Many wear jingles sewn onto their dresses, catching the overwhelming beat of the drum, keeping the beat like the ringing feet of the men.
Some people wear no regalia at all, dancing in whatever summer-wear they bring to the event. No swimsuits. No short shorts. This is not a ceremonial circle but a certain decorum and respect to the traditions of all the represented tribes is to be expected.
Everyone is dripping with sweat. The MC reminds the dancers to stay hydrated, there is a jug of iced water with a pile of cups next to the entrance to the circle. A small shade tent is on the other side of the entrance, reserved for the lead dancers, who, since they are almost certainly paid, are expected to dance at least a third of the time.
The drum begins and the dancers move.
The underlying beat is simple but explosive, the singers weaving inside the pulse, around and around, before and after the beat, emphasizing the pulse by stepping on either side of it.
The dancers do much the same. Some are more traditional "straight" dancers (I count myself amongst these) keeping the beat, stopping, waving their arms at the "honor beats', generally three in number, that mark each phrase in the music.
Others are more unrestrained, imitating the steps of a hunting bird, a prancing horse, a butterfly.
A few are "fancy dancers", bouncing in regalias festooned with threads that wave like grass in the wind. Besides the "grass dancers" you see women in jingle dresses, swinging like racks of bells, shaking out the beat so clearly, making it easier for fancier dancers to bounce around them.
Those wearing regalia - of whatever complexity or authenticity - are dressed in a style thousands of years old, at home being themselves
Here we are being who we are - savages in many ways, certainly non-partakers in many of the ceremonies of restriction that dominate so much of American culture.
We are savages. For myself I am at my happiest when that part of my life is unrestrained and free - when it "leaves the reservation" so the speak.
Dancing around a fire, screaming the high-pitched cries of my people, keeping my part of the vision of this people who have lived so long under the influence of the dominant culture. We are still here and our sense of reality is very different from those around us.
But a beat is a beat, a dance is a dance and a soul set free to live in both is free indeed.