Drumming & Dancing on the Planet of Women
For the veiled women, everywhere.
I have been reading THE BOOKSELLER OF KABUL and READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN. The cover of the former features two figures shrouded in dark blue chadors, or burkas; whatever one calls them they efface female identity. Swedish author Asne Seierstad experienced the suffocating canvas, first-hand. She lived with the Afghan Bookseller’s family and went shopping with his daughters; watched them denied education, and married off against their will.
The cover of READING LOLITA shows only the faces of two young women wrapped in head scarves; faces which dare not exhibit makeup; eyes, which by law, must be cast down in the street, in the classroom, in the market. They could have been author, Azar Nafisi’s Iranian students, or herself. She recounts barely escaping arrest for having coffee with her (male) mentor; female students expelled for running on university grounds; flogged for being caught wearing nail polish.
Anger, grief, and a certain kind of guilt have followed me for days. I was not reading fiction. These women are real. Their stories will follow me when, as I have for many summers, I visit the Planet of Women. They have made me remember one special summer, and one special woman.
We are loud. We are happy. We are free. We are four hundred women who write. Once a year, from far places on the globe, we come together amid the trees, the glass and brick, the covered walkways, the flowers, and the squirrels of Skidmore College, in Saratoga, New York, at the annual conference of the International Women’s Writing Guild. We teach and a ttend workshops and readings; make new friends and regreet old ones; purge our griefs and proclaim our joys; gain practical knowledge, and learn to believe in ourselves again. We swim in the college pool, lose ourselves in the library, walk in the woods and meditate in the skylighted chapel. Freed from jobs, food preparation, children, and the needs of others, we live for seven days on a Planet of Women.
Evenings, we read our work to the banked rows of listeners in the college auditorium. Working inside a tight three-minute limit, we say things only women would laugh at; talk of things over which only a woman would know how to grieve. We may be bawds or mystics, but we will be understood. When the readings are over, we gather at The Spa, the tall wood paneled student center, to drink wine, eat junk food and cram ten chairs around a table for four so that we can laugh and share stories more easily.
We are black, white, Asian, Latino, Slavic, Irish, African. We are as old as ninety-two and as young as sixteen. We are fat, skinny, rich, poor, stylish, frumpy, published, trying-to-be-published, only-just-aware-that-we-could-be-published, and contentÐnot-to-be-published. We are mothers, daughters, widows, wives, singles, lesbians, professionals, stay-at-homes, retired, or starting second careers. We come with braces and canes, in wheelchairs, with work dogs. No one tells us who we must be. Whether we show off our varicose veins in shorts, bare our taut bellies in low-slung jeans or cover ourselves in colorful caftans, no one tells us what we must wear. Along about the third day on this planet, everyone I meet looks beautiful.
I teach a workshop; seventy-five minutes each day for six days, “How to Use Imaging to Enhance Your Writing.” Called by many names, including creative visualization, we use this technique to work together on starter pieces in fiction, poetry, non-fiction, memoir and drama. We share what we write, often amazing ourselves. People we never knew were in there emerge from our skulls and onto the paper.
As the week progresses, the name cards become people. The business-like self-publisher writes an exotic tale of a decaying mansion and a mysterious jaguar. A high school nurse in African dress mourns for her lost uterus. A travel writer interviews her Welsh grandmother on the causeway to Tintagel. A biographer exclaims, “You mean what I just wrote is actually a poem?”
Into this richness one summer, came Irena, a tiny, older woman with curly, white hair, a sweet smile and bright eyes. She was dressed with the perfect casualness which identified her as European, even before I heard the accent. She seemed tidy and quiet. When we imaged animals, she wrote about her little dog. When we wrote about places we have always wanted to go, the others wrote travel pieces; Irena wrote about her apartment, explaining, “I have never really had a home, so this is where I have always wanted to be.”
Eventually she revealed a naughty sense of humor, a bright wit, and memories of a large house in Warsaw, where she was raised by the housekeeper so that her Jewish mother could remain in hiding. After a haunted adolescence in post war Europe, she was alive because she was only half Jewish, and fate allowed her and her mother to escape, first to the Netherlands, and then to America. We learned that she was a cancer survivor and that she swam every day. Her writing spoke of loneliness, lost love, all in the shadow of the Holocaust.
On the last night of this gathering on the Planet of Women, after a closing ritual in the auditorium where we may do anything from serious chanting to blowing bubbles, we repair to the Spa for a release of energy and spirit which will rattle the rafters. Our week overlaps a conference of accountants. They flee at the sight of us, and no wonder: several hundred noisy, uppity women in long dresses, ethnic clothing, some with garlands in their hair, and bent on celebration.
On this night women come with drums. Two begin the drumming. One is white, husky, with long hair and a tough look. She parks a large can of La Batt’s beer next to her chair and fingers the wooden sides of her long drum, the kind you hold between your knees. She begins a sharp but insistent single beat: bat-dat-bat dat-de-dat. Another comes, this one dark, younger, very tall, and willow slim. Her hair is done in tiny dreadlocks, piled atop her head. She seems shy, looking down at the deep blue ceramic of the long stemmed doombah she has slung from her shoulder. Tapping gently and tentatively, she answers: bat-dat-bat-dat-de-dat.
A beat from the older one. A beat from the younger. Four times she beats. One from the younger. Four times again. And one. Now two. One. And two. They smile, and their sound fills the room, rising toward the ceiling as other drummers join, reaching inside the beat — hands matching hands, lines between lines, chatter between chatter, voices between voices. We are inside the roundness of their drumming and their smiles.
Drums are for dancing, which is what we do. Dancing on the Planet of Women is an important activity. A circle forms. Inside and outside of it, women move in free-form motion. Some are timid, smiling shyly at their own daring. There is a frail, blonde woman, young and injured. She limps, but she makes her limp part of her dance, twirling and turning off center.
Others jump in with wild abandon, skirts flying, shoulders shaking, legs pumping. One all in black, bounds into the dancing space, arms out; she wrestles the air and shakes her head until her short hair dances too. A dark-skinned woman appears, large and dignified. Her beat is private, stately, and moves beyond what the drums offer. She steps precisely, heavily, into the earth beneath this floor, and arms raised above the colors of her long dress she shudders her body. An oak tree dancing. The sound goes on for hours.
This year a new element appears: belly dancers, complete with finger cymbals, drums, and veils. One is a solitary who undulates by herself, the other a mother/daughter pair who evolve into a hip-shaking competition. Earlier in the week in her class, the daughter had explained to us that according to tradition, this dancing was done by women, for women. On the sidelines now, brief lessons are offered, and for one shiny moment my body understands how to make my hips do marvelous things. Then the drum beat changes and I am lost.
Dancers and drummers come and go, seek refreshment, and start again. Through the whirl one figure remains, a slight girl, long brown hair tied and hanging down her back, a thin body, womanly but very pale. She is barefoot, clad only in a slip of a dress, dark green against her white skin. She is dancing for herself, thoughtfully exploring how her hips might undulate, her knees carry her in a back-bend to the floor, patterns she can make with hands and arms; how she can draw the red veil she has borrowed from the belly dancers across her body or swirl it in the air. I am glad that no man watches her. She is, for now, the object of no man’s desire, only the intrepid explorer of her own self.
There is a small flurry of motion. A new drummer has taken a seat. Now we will hear some drumming. Sindiwe Magona, African author of Mother to Mother is here and her daughter has accompanied her. Feisty, witty, and very chic (she is a clothing designer) Thokozile hikes up her skirts, sets a borrowed long drum between her knees, remarks, “My African grandmother taught me how to do this,” and takes off, hands flying. This music is authentic, sophisticated, and wild. One by one, the older African American women, in full African dress for this special night, enter the circle. Against the wildness of the music, each does a dignified turn, eyes twinkling at the rest of us on the cultural sidelines.
Through all of this, a tiny chink-chink of sound made its way into my consciousness. It had been making its own music, now on the beat, now playing counterpoint. I turned from the circle to locate it, and what I saw was Irena. She had donned a long, pink, flowered skirt for the evening’s festivities and she had two brown beer bottles which she was beating together. Her face wreathed in a merry smile, she swirled on her fragile legs, pink skirt billowing around her. Threading her way among the crowded tables, she smiled and waved her bottles at her audience.
I marveled. She has survived these seventy-eight years, carrying the Holocaust inside her. And suddenly I wanted to stand on a chair and shout to be heard far beyond this celebration of women who are happy, loud, and free.
“Look you!” I wanted to shout, “Look you: all you dictators, all you generalissimos, all you mullahs, sheiks and ayatollahs, all you juntas, all you small town bigots; the worst you can devise will never be enough. Know this, spirit-killers: in the end you will lose. Because Irena is dancing, you will always lose. She is dancing on her aging legs, wreathed in a smile no horror could destroy, making music with two empty beer bottles. Look you! Irena is dancing.”
ABOUT THE IWWG
The International Women’s Writing Guild (IWWG) is the brainchild of Hannelore Hahn, its founder and Executive Director, who decided in 1976 that she would single handedly form a network for the personal and professional empowerment of women through writing. A single mother working for the City of New York, she was inspired by the UN’s 1975 International Women’s Year. Thirty years later the IWWG has a large international membership, a website (www.iwwg.com) its own credit card, health insurance, and a widely circulated Newsletter which offers marketing information. It provides lists of agents and publishers to members, sponsors a writing project for women in prison, and is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) attached to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Its members, many to their own amazement, publish over one hundred books each year.
Of the ten nationwide mini-conferences IWWG offers each year, the weeklong gathering (June 16-24, 2006) at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York is the largest. Called “Remember the Magic,” it attracts over 400 women from around the world and presents more than sixty workshops in five sessions each day. There are selections from menus including The Nuts and Bolts of Writing, Critique Sessions, Transformation of Self and Work, Mythology and Non-Linear Knowledge, and The Arts, the Body and Health. Last-minute registrations are always welcome: consult the website; mail to Box 810, Gracie Station, NYC 10028-0082; or telephone 212-737-7536.
M.K. Streznewski is pleased to return as a contributor to Wild River Review. Her previous contributions included profiles of Stanley Kunitz and Donald Hall as well as several essays. Streznewski’s career has included theater, journalism, and teaching of creative writing on levels from high school to senior citizen. She has served as a workshop director at the annual conference of the International Women’s Writing Guild, poetry Editor of the Bucks County Writer, and poetry curator of the Writers Room, a non-profit writer center in Doylestown, PA.
A poet, fiction writer, and author of non-fiction, Streznewski’s most recent appearances have included teaching a poetry class at the Pearl Buck House in Dublin, PA and a dramatic reading of a 13-poem sequence based on her survival of open heart surgery in 2006. Called “Rending the Heart” it was staged as part of the annual Celebration of the Spoken Word by the Medicine Show Theater Company of Manhattan. Streznewski is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Woman Words and Rag Time, which are housed in Poet’s House in New York City. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in national magazines. A non-fiction book, Gifted Grownups, the Mixed Blessing of Extraordinary Potential, appears in libraries world wide. Her short story collection, In the Eye of the Great Staring Moon, and novel, Watching Anna, are making the rounds of editors.