MAYA: DANCE, DRUMS, DREAMS - My First Time Dancing Around the Fire
Updated: Feb 17
Continued from - My First SCA Event:
THE FIRST NIGHT - Halfdan Was There
THE FIGHTERS - Gawking at My First Heavy Weapons Tournament
DAMSEL OUT OF DIS-DRESS - My First Time in Heavy Armor
My first taste of fighting in heavy armor wasn’t the only monumental thing that happened at my first SCA event.
Her name was Maya, and she was the most glorious belly dancer I had ever seen. My first teacher, Hala, was captivating, gorgeous, a life-changing inspiration. But the discovery that belly dance had a completely different side from the star-spangled cabaret scene of Greek restaurants, James Bond flicks, and all the cheesecake Orientalist dances in the old epic movies from my youth blew me away.
Don’t get me wrong, I had no intention of permanently hanging up my sparkles. I loved my cabaret costumes, just like I loved everything Hala had taught me. But the combination of this dance form set to its live music under the moon and stars around a campfire set me ablaze in a way that I hadn’t even experienced when I was first struck by the belly dancing bug.
22 years old
It’s Saturday night. The weather is perfect here at Castle Fever. It’s clear and warm, just at the start of the Wisconsin summer. I went to the campground showers before supper to wash off my new obsession: heavy weapons combat. All the fighters were a bit surprised when I showed up to eat. After seeing me pour buckets of sweat into Berwyn’s armor with my hair everywhere, my flowing, raspberry ghost-gown was a bit of a change. I do actually clean up pretty well.
But I already know: that was nothing. Once the sun starts to set, its time.
I wish I had a more period belly dance costume, but with everything else I had to sew for this event, plus all my classes, my hours at the office, and dancing at the restaurant, I didn’t have time. Plus, nobody in The Shire knew much about period belly dance costumes, so I’ll have to check out what the other dancers are wearing tonight and sew like a madwoman before my next event. It’s only in a few weeks, but I should have time to get myself more up to speed.
As it is, I’ve patchworked together a close-enough outfit for my first drum circle. I've brought my black velvet crop-top with the purple I-Dream-of-Jeannie-sleeves, its matching belt with the stamped gold coins and filigree ornaments, my too-short black circle skirt with the gold trim, and my black MC Hammer pants.
I know it shows my midriff and isn't at all period, but hey. A girl does what she can.
I hope my dancing will make up for my almost-a-jingle-bunny costume. I’ve been performing every weekend for the past two-and-a-half years at the Greek restaurant. I didn’t get nearly enough instruction before I lost my teacher, so I’ve had to fill in all the gaps with my studies in the Dance Department: Ballet, Modern, Jazz, and a bunch of different ballroom forms. I’ll get to do Tap next year, as well as Latin ballroom, but what I’ve yearned for most has been to find another belly dancing teacher.
Lo and behold, Michael just introduced me to one--I had no idea we had anybody in town except Hala. Barbara never performs anywhere except on festival stages with her troupe and she doesn’t interact with the other dancers, so as many times I’ve scoured that city for any hint of belly dance, I’d never heard of her. Well, I just started with her the other week and I am so excited! She has been dancing for eighteen years, and oh, does it show.
So far, I already know all the moves, but I never knew what a bunch of them were called. They were just things I picked up from watching Madame Lucy. I mimicked her in the mirror until I could make my body do them. Those hands that ripple like streams of rain trickling down a water pane. That big, gushy hip circle and that super-gushy hip infinity--the one where the hip dives over and out--Barbara calls that one a “Maya.” I wracked my brains over that one for a month, but just one dumb little thing from Barbara made it so much easier. Bend my knees more. Duh. Then I don’t have to lift up my heel from the floor to get it out there.
I’ve been Maya-ing with my knees bent day and night. In my kitchen as I do dishes, in the bathroom when I’m brushing my teeth. Anytime I’m in there, really, because the mirror is right there and I can make sure I’m doing it like Barbara showed me.
Maya here, Maya there, Maya-Maya, everywhere. I am a Maya-ing fool.
I can’t wait to try it out tonight. After I’m dressed in my dance costume, I put my hair in a ponytail with my gold-and-black scarf, put on a little makeup by flashlight, and put my brown hiking boots back on. They're still a little soggy from fighting but I don’t have any other footwear besides tennis shoes and high heels, so they’ll have to be good enough for now, too. I can see that I’m going to have to invest in a pair of sandals until I can afford actual period shoes.
Once I crawl out of Maghnuis’ tent, I have enough space to put on the cloak I made at Hal’s garb party.
Umph. Another stab in the heart.
I made it at the party just before his death. Hal was the one who helped me choose the pattern.
Wrapping the huge thing around me, I pull up the hood even though it’s not actually cold. It’s like the echo of being hugged by him. Like he’s here with us no matter what. Then I head back downhill where they had the tournaments and pick-up fights all day.
While I was getting ready, night has completely fallen. I walk alone down the dusty road, passing between rows of pines and all the campsites. Some of the period pavilions and people’s encampments are truly spectacular. Now that they’re bathed in glowing lanterns and tiki torches, it’s even more magical than in the daytime.
I feel the music before I can hear it. Low and earthy. It’s really nothing more than a pulse deep in my bones, in my heart and belly. But my body already knows what to do with it. It hums beneath patchy conversations and the rise of laughter from the small campfires and dimly lit sunshades that pockmark the woods. It wends between the trees. It is an irresistible siren call. The hill makes one rise before it dips steeply down. As I crest it, the vibration becomes distinguishable as music.
My steps grow broader. So does my grin. My pulse speeds to match the rhythm, and my cloak billows out behind me in a sensation that I imagine only superheroes, historical damsels, characters from legend, and Darth Vader can know.
The first sight I’m treated to is the raging bonfire and the silhouettes of milling bodies. Others clump on camp chairs all around. A man in a kilt adds more wood to the blaze. They’ve taken down all the ropes that marked out the boundaries of the tournament field, then built the fire at the edge of the clearing. As I draw near, I can make out other dark shapes on the far side of the fire, moving in ways that have become second-nature to me. The hip lifts and twists, the snake arms, the undulations. My heart races in glee.
Once close enough, I see that one of the seated clumps contains three drummers. The lowest of the drums’ vibrations strike me to the marrow, thudding in time with the beat that hammers through my veins. The highest sounds beckon to my hips and the tinkling ornaments that adorn them. There are no melody instruments, nobody singing, and there are only four dancers in contrast to the much bigger crowd they had up at the barn for court dancing after supper.
Apparently it’s true, that thing I’ve heard about Northshield. That there are many people here who turn their noses up, saying, “Belly dance? We’ll have none of that here!”
Well, it's here tonight, and now so am I. For two months, I’ve been chomping at the bit for this thing I was promised since I first encountered the unimaginable sight of a Viking in Montague Hall.
The music is at once familiar, yet nothing like any belly dance albums I have at home. The coed trio pounds away on their drums, the like of which I have never seen, only heard. They are held sideways in the lap with the open hole at the bottom angled off the hip. These drums are taller than they are wider, narrowed at the center of the ceramic base like they were pinched on a pottery wheel. A gray-haired lady in an immense black-and-gold veil sits down beside them and starts playing finger cymbals.
My eyes go huge with my gasp of excitement. Just a few months ago, I inherited a set of those little gold clangers from a friend who is an elementary school music teacher. He said that his class never used them, so he gave them to me upon learning that I was a belly dancer with no finger cymbals. A sacrilege, but I have no idea how to play them.
Watching this lady’s fingers fly, I grin and drool.
For a time, I keep my cloak on and observe from the fringes. As I mill and mingle around the fire, pelting everyone with my myriad questions, I learn that they call the drums “dumbeks” and they call the finger cymbals “zills.” My smile is the same one that keeps spreading too wide for my face. It happened this morning upon finally getting to experience Merchant’s Row, and then again when I chose my persona name. It was even huger while watching the archery and heavy weapons tournaments. I’m not even going to attempt to describe the ones I wore in armor.
I think I might have gone a little rabid around the edges.
When the Scotsman finishes messing about with the fire, the dancers spread around the full circumference of the blaze and--
And my world stops.
The same thing happened when I first spied Hal at that trebuchet demo. This time it's a dancer straight out of a painting from Serpent of the Nile.
She is stunning. Just…mesmerizing. Long, straight brown hair, a white veil held in place by a gold circlet, supple hands that draw ripples beneath her eyes. She’s dressed in a calf-length, striped coat that is fitted to her waist and flares at her glorious hips. The neckline swoops under her bust, revealing the deep V of a white underdress. The coat has a trim of tiny gold tassels that shiver with her movements. Its sleeves are fitted too. They come down to her elbows where more of the white cotton flows out in long drapes that mimic the motions of her hands. The fullness of her rust-hued pantaloons billow every time she spins or pops her foot up with a hip-drop.
Like the drums and her coat, her belt is like nothing I have ever seen. Embroidery, creamy woven fringe, chunky beads, and more tiny tassels, as well as larger ones that swing like bells, sway like cattails, and swat the air whenever she gives a sharp twist of the hips. My goggle-eyed gaze has become affixed to them.
When she sees me watching so intently, she smiles, then dances my direction and focuses solely on me. My face flares hotter than the fire that flickers and sparks behind her. My eyes have to be the shape and size of those shields the Viking warriors hefted all afternoon. They must be as shiny-bright as the polished metal domes bolted over the center grips. My heart soars. A lump comes into my throat. If I don’t shove it down my gullet, I’m going to get all choked up.
For two-and-a-half years I’ve been waiting. Searching. Yearning. Aching.
Now here she is. Her hip work is so smooth, her carriage so comfortable as she translates everything the musicians say into movement and breath--or are they drumming what they see her dance? I can’t fully tell. She is the lightning; they are thunder. They are the wave; she is the crash.
Her wafting, rippling hands begin to curl. Her gaze intensifies. Her smile transforms into an enticing smirk, and her head tilts in that way I know all too well. I do this to my to my own audiences at the restaurant whenever I encourage them to get up and dance with me.
Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…
My heart thuds, then gallops off up the hill to hide in the trees like a four-year-old who has suddenly caught a case of the shies. But only for a second. When the heavenly belly dance goddess moves closer with the “come on” gesture and the “I can see that you want to” smile, my heart comes sprinting back down into my chest and lands in my guts.
GO. GO NOW.
Pulse a-flutter, I shed my cloak and wriggle out of my boots, leaving them at the edge of the huge, red carpet. It has grimy, matted fringe on the ends that must have once been white, showing how many times it has been laid out for these events. The pattern is faded and worn, but still colorful. An intricate flower-and-vine design splashes blues, greens and gold through the ruby background.
The rug caresses the soles of my feet and dulls the sharpness of the ground beneath. It doesn’t feel rock-strewn, but it is definitely lumpy and un-level. I’m accustomed to the restaurant’s polished wood floor and its buzz-cut, utility carpet on the upper level, or the fluffier carpet of my apartment. Here on the ground, I have to catch my balance. I don’t quite know where to put my feet.
My face blazes hotter, and not only because of my proximity to the fire. I suddenly can’t remember any moves Hala taught me, so I let my dance siren lead and stall with the distraction tactic of introducing myself. The heralds helped me choose a persona name this morning. I went with “Arabella.” It means “answered prayer.”
“That’s beautiful,” she gushes, then laughs at what she just said. “And fitting. After all, Bella also means ‘beautiful.’”
Catching my breath, I duck my head and nod, echoing her laugh. It's a multilayered laugh, not fully one of delight. Wistfulness threads through it because there’s another tiny knife in my heart that my fiancé is not here to share this moment.
I know from all my years studying Spanish that her words are true. Bella does mean “beautiful.” That was actually one of the reasons why I chose this name. It reminded me of one of my favorite songs that I sent to Kyle on the mixtape I made just after changing my major to Spanish. La Bella Maria de Mi Amor. That song always gives voice to the way I ache for him across two thousand miles, especially at moments like this.
Si deseo sonreír
Pienso solamente en ti
En la magia del amor
En tu piel, en tu sabor
If I want to smile
I think only of you
In the magic of love
In your skin, in your taste…
Whenever Kyle is home visiting from California, he loves to come watch me dance, and there are never any more special nights doing so than when he is in the crowd.
But he is somewhere on his distant coast, kissed by the same moon yet a world away.
My dance muse drags me back to the present moment by layering a graceful curtseying bow on top of her dancing. “I’m Lady Maya. Well met.”
Considering my obsessive move of the week, I take this as another sign that I was meant to be here in this moment, dancing with her. “Your name is beautiful, too,” I return, hips finally easing into the autopilot that has become customary any time patrons want to talk to me during a show. “What does it mean?”
“Dream or illusion,” she says with another one of her mysterious cat-grins. “Or magic.”
Indeed she is, and I hope she can see that in my eyes as I watch her. She weaves magic into her dancing. She paints dreams with her hands. The fire brings out the warm tones of her hair and transforms her coat into liquid gold. The starry sky matches her gaze, while the breeze toys with her veil and all the adornments she wears.
I feel like such a child playing dress-up in a Halloween costume out of season, but Maya wears her garb like clothing. I yearn to dress this way, to be so natural in it. This is not merely skin and sex, like I feel bombarding me from the eyes of many patrons in the restaurant when I wear my cabaret costumes. In Maya's dance, there is sex there, but it is not put garishly on display any more than her skin is. It's more like a deep sensuality. Seeing these movements in that outfit--suddenly the invitation and enticement I always saw in Hala’s moves and captivating gaze is woven into even more subtlety beneath layers of striped cloth. The intricate ornamentation gives voice to everything going on beneath the fabric. Beneath her skin.
I don’t have a problem with showing my skin. But I am always saddened when the sight of it distracts from the art I’m trying to create and the deeper conversations I’m trying to have with the people watching. I know many of them are there to just see a pretty young thing shake it. That’s fun.
But as I watch Maya move in this strange and wondrous collection of textiles and flow, I realize that that’s never been what drives me to dance.
As we fall silent, the music and the movement take hold of us both. Soon, our hips move in unison to the heavy pounding of the drums. Some of the patterns Maya does are familiar, while I have to catch others on the fly. She switches to her shoulders. Rolling, shimmying, chest-popping, grinning. I have no idea how I can sense that she’s about to switch back to her hips, but something tells me and I switch with her. Her tassels beat the air; my cheap little brass coins tinkle. Twisting, twisting, swishing, POW! A laugh bubbles up through my throat. Her hands circle. Mine follow suit. Around and around each other we move.
Just like I did in Hala’s class, I follow her like a tail, mimicking her every step. I wish I had my own tassel-tail to swish. I will soon.
The lady with the finger cymbals comes out to join us. I shift into mimicking her movements as I watch her fingers cling and clang and ring and roll. Her cymbals are so much prettier than mine, not just in looks but in sound. They have delicate designs etched into the brass. Mine are flat music room cymbals, but I can tell--her zills have been made for dancing. They flash in the firelight as she lifts them overhead. They fly in a pattern I’ve heard on my CDs, while her hips shimmy in the same timing.
When the song finally ends and another warms up, I take the opportunity to get some water. Plus, I just really want to watch Maya again. She’s gone to dance with a girl my age in the same type of coat as her own, just striped in red, purple, and green. They look alike, move similarly. They fall in and out of choreographed combinations they both know. It makes me wonder if they’re teacher and student. They look like they could be sisters.
After a time, Maya moves off to an empty spot on the other side of the carpet. The shift in her energy is as overt as that bonfire. It’s as dramatic and instantaneous a change as the two tournaments I watched this morning. First, the combatants played and hammed around, a-joke with their missing limbs. But once they were fully restored for the second competition, we got to truly watch them fight.
Now I see. This whole time, Maya has just been messing around. Now that she is no longer teaching or mentoring, no longer warming up, she gifts us with her true dance. Everything sublimates. Her moves become fully embodied, showing that they were mere gestures before, and she is gone inside the music. She’s not exactly performing for all of us watching. It’s more like she lets us witness her fusion with the drums and zills. Her eyes close. Her arms lift. She drinks in the night and lets the rhythm overtake her.
Her hips move in a pattern that gives voice to how intimately she knows these rhythms, and to how well that lets her improvise. While the two younger musicians hold the base rhythm, the lead drummer grits his teeth in a grin and goes off. Maya follows him perfectly. She moves closer to him and they share an intense conversation of urging drum hands and flying hips.
He slides into an elongated “brrrrrrrrr” with his fingertips. The other drummers drop out. Maya’s hips shimmer, driving the onlookers into a frenzy of applause and trills. They whoop her on. All I can do is gawk. The drumrolls pulse…and pulse…and surge! She pulses and surges with him, shimmying over here…now over there…now up and back down. The roll intensifies. She shimmies up onto her tiptoes. Her head falls back. Her arms rise like beatific praise as she gazes into the depths of the night sky. She calls down the heavens.
She hits the ground on her knees and back, palms outstretched across the carpet. We all go insane, jumping, screaming, yelling! The drummers tumble back into a heavy beat, this one intense and luscious. Her core tightens and she arches, dragging her torso back upright. Her rippling hands twirl and twine like caduceus snakes. Her hips draw infinities above the earth.
The wave goes up her spine, and she arches backwards once more. The crown of her head nearly touches the ground, but then her core tightens again and she changes trajectory, barely skimming the carpet with the back of her head. Up she swims and then back down again, only kissing the ground with her flowing hair.
When she returns upright and crouches with her feet underneath her to draw Mayas with her hips the whole way to standing, I realize that I’ve been holding my breath. The air rushes from my lungs as the drummers shift again.
Heavy. Plodding. Repetitive. Trodding.
She whisks off her veil and circlet, twirls them around for a second and drops them into her basket at the edge of the carpet. Then she starts to spin.
Her head swings out to the side. Then across her back. To the other side. And down. And around…and again…and around…and again. The drummers speed up. So does she. She stops spinning, but her hair keeps moving. Back...and forth...and back, and forth, and back and forth and back-and-forth! She arches back again and whips her head from side to side, drawing infinities with the tips of her hair against the backdrop of firelight. The fine tresses swish like she’s painting in copper. Her fingertips touch her heart. The infinities change into wild circles.
I keep having to make myself breathe. I am not the only one. The woman next to me glances over and we share “holy shit” grins before snapping our eyes back onto Maya.
At last, the rhythm returns to the familiar beat they started with. Her eyes peel open. She looks up to see all of us watching her, and that she’s alone on the carpets. At the flash of her smile, we all burst into cheers again, but she’ll have no more of that. She drags all of us dancers back out with her, acquires a few more who aren’t in Middle Eastern dress but that doesn’t matter. We fall into a frenzy of pounding hips set to flying fingertips against drumheads. I think we’re all a bit drunk on the spell she’s woven. We burn the end of the song into the ground. The musicians finally crescendo and finish with a BOOM!
It echoes into the night.
So do the waves pulsing through my body.
More applause. Lots of hugging. Very little breathing from me. I’m too worked up.
This is it. This is what I want to do. That is exactly how I want to dance!
It’s everything I had discovered in Hala’s class, and all my favorite expressive moments in Modern and Jazz, but with…something else. Something that can only be found in the way the music carries on the air, and in the outdoor air itself. It’s the way all the elements of nature converge around us and within us and in what we weave between us.
This is magic.
It’s what I’ve always thought I should be finding in church, with the way that God and religious devotion have been described. But I’ve never felt that.
Instead, I’ve found it out here under the stars, engaging in a notorious dance form at a big party where people are getting drunk as they pretend to be knights, ladies, squires, and duchesses. I have no idea what I am, but I’m on the right track again, in my search for this thing I glimpsed for a brief moment. I’ve been aching for it ever since Hala left me in the dust for that Iron Will shoot.
It’s taken more than two years to find it again, and it is more than worth the wait.
When I return home on Sunday, I barely get unpacked before I’m back in my living room with the music on. It’s different now. I search for all the heavy drums among the orchestral sounds. I hunt for the firelight in the melodies, and I find it. Easily. I find the sky and the clouds and the earth as well. I can feel the ground far down beneath my apartment’s carpet, yet it’s right there under my feet.
The visions of everything Maya painted upon my mind are so crisp. Her patterns are etched deep into my heart, and I set to work honing those hip combos she showed me.
I also start learning how to do that glorious ground-skimming backbend. It’s a killer on the thighs so I have to build those muscles up by leaning back…and then leaning a little further…and a little further back. But I taught myself how to do a back walkover by incremental inches. I taught myself how to do a back handspring in the buoying effects of water by gradually decreasing my distance from the shore at The Lake. Eventually, it was nothing more than mind over matter as I sprang backwards onto my hands in calf-deep water, so this will be nothing.
For the next week straight, I am an obsessive fiend.
Maya here, Maya there, Maya-Maya everywhere.
Alas, my classes with Barbara did not last long. She had seemed excited to have such a promising student show up out of nowhere.
Until she learned that I was a restaurant dancer.
But at Castle Fever, as we all guzzled water and chatted at the fringes of the firelight, I found out that Maya was, too. She performed in Minneapolis, and was also a member of a dance company called Jawaahir. (3) Turns out her instructor, the illustrious Cassandra, was the one who had also taught Laurie, my old theater friend. Laurie was the senior who had first suggested that I learn belly dancing while we rehearsed that Polynesian dance during my freshman year.
To my elation, Maya taught her own classes and had been looking for an excuse to come up north and teach. I assured her that there would be interest.
She taught us workshops on drum solos and veil dancing, and she answered my thousand-and-one nights of never-ending questions, first at SCA events, and later at her house when I got up the nerve to drive to Minneapolis. She introduced me to all sorts of new costuming theories, to Persian storytelling hands and some basic travel steps, and to my two other Twin Cities dance mentors, Leila and Khadizha.
They introduced me to a folkloric fusion dance troupe in California called Hahbi'Ru, another called Gypsy Caravan, and a new TV series called Xena Warrior Princess, which reminded me an awful lot of the gladiatrix I’d been writing since I was seventeen. (4-6)
As the summer progressed, they sat me down under a sunshade one afternoon and taught me the basics of how to use my music room clangers--my zills. (8) After learning some rudimentary patterns and rhythms, I went home and embarked upon the excruciating process of learning how to walk, chew gum, pat my head and rub my belly, all while keeping a smile on my face.
That is, I started learning how to play zills and dance at the same time.
When Maya learned how much trouble I’d had getting my hips on Middle Eastern music up in the northland boonies, she sent me home with a few cassette tapes of her old practice music. Here I discovered the joys of Hossam Ramzy and Helm. Then I got my voracious little clutches on a Hahbi'Ru video of my very own. This troupe became my next dance inspiration who would transform VHS tapes into overplayed, glitchy garbage. They, along with Maya, Leila and Khadizha, would also transform my costuming. (2)
Some of the songs I first heard on Maya’s grainy cassette tapes, several of which bear the crackle of old vinyl, still rank among my eternal favorites to this day: Zexra by Sultan’s Caravan, Rumeli Karsilamasi, my first drum solo The Cat's Meow, and Hossam Ramzy’s version of Aziza.
Above all, one song summed up what meeting Maya, the other SCA dancers, and their musicians did to me. Not only did they intensify my scorching obsession with belly dancing, but they introduced me to the joys of allowing myself to be moved by live music and firelight, out there in the elements. Although I eventually stopped going to SCA events, this passion became so deeply embedded into me that it is the very heartbeat of my dance.
The theme song for this phenomenon is Ahmed Hamid Tutu’s Ala Nar. It was my favorite song of them all, and I played it nonstop. When I asked Maya what it was about, she grinned and said, “I’m on fire.”
I most certainly, irredeemably was.
🔥🔥🔥 LISTEN TO ALA NAR HERE 🔥🔥🔥
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: JERRY-RIGGING - Building My First Set of Armor
--OR: If you missed the start of this SCA series, it begins with THE TREBUCHET - A Siege Engine Knocks My Life 163 Degrees Sideways
--OR: You can find the rest of my dance adventures HERE.
2) Garb ideas for the Middle Eastern, Turkish & Persian persona
3) Cassandra School of Dance & Jawaahir
--Tribute to the amazing John Compton R.I.P.
8) Finger cymbals
--Zill vs. Sagat - choosing your toys. I just love this gal. Total finger cymbal addict. Woooot!
--Yessss! Someone else who sews the elastic on the OUTSIDE!
--Zill drill for basic rhythmic components: straight 4s and the gallop
--The types of cymbal players I always gravitated toward and emulated - using them as another melodic percussion instrument in the band whether or not I was sitting with the drummers or up dancing.
9) The SCA: