Dancing in New Mexico Part Two

Sacred dance is part of the indigenous culture of this place, from the sunlit feasts on the Pueblos, and to the starlit dances of the mountain gods and the girls’ coming of age ceremony on the Mescalero Apache reservation. In two works in progress I’ve written about these dances as seen by Mae Martin, in a psychic vision of a feast at Cochiti Pueblo, and as a first-time visitor to Mescalero, her friend Bernadette Pena’s home reservation. To stay on topic and avoid spoilers, I’ve cut the dialogue and plot material, leaving only the imagery of the dances. When you get to these dances in the books, there will be a lot more mystery going on. For now, I’m sharing only the mystical.

The corn dance at Cochiti, from Soul Loss, work in progress, to be Book Four in the series:

Women in one-shouldered black dresses with colorful sashes and turquoise and coral jewelry danced across from men in white kilts with red and green trim and foxtails down the back. Heavy necklaces and strands of shells bounced on the men’s bare turquoise-painted chests. Tufts of parrot feathers waved on their heads. Shaking rattles and waving pine branches, the lines moved in unison in an elaborate weaving pattern except for small confused children shuffling at one end. On the far side of the plaza, a fat man painted with black and white stripes, wearing a black vest-like drape and a belted loincloth with a turtle shell on the back, seemed to guide and care for the group. Feet keeping the rhythm set by a single huge drum, he lifted a woman’s long hair off her neck as if to cool her, and then retied a child’s loose legging. 

             A thin man in the same striped body paint and turtle-backed loincloth, his whitened hair in high pigtails stiff with cornhusks, danced between the lines of dancers in the opposite direction of their progress around the plaza, as if he were invisible to them. His movement had an eerie, floating quality. Squared black lines around his eyes and mouth gave his face an otherworldly expression.

             The pounding of the big blue and yellow drum sounded like a giant heart echoing off the walls of the pueblo. The drummer turned it on its side, and then over, never losing the beat. A chorus of men in bright shirts sang with it, in a slow, subtly rotating procession. A stout man swept a banner over the dancers, on a pole so long it looked impossible to handle, and yet he did so with grace. On the banner were symbols of corn, sun, clouds, lightning, and rain.

The Mescalero Apache Ga’an dancers, from Haunted, work in progress, to be Book Five in the series.

Masked men in leather kilts, their bodies painted black with lightning bolts on their chests, wore towering multi-pronged headdresses balanced on their heads. Boys, painted ashy white, wore strange masks like a cross between a bucket and bird.

            Mae left the bleachers to join a small cluster of people standing behind the singers and drummers who sat on the red benches in front of the big tipi. The dancers nearest to the musicians began to smack their lighting-painted sticks against their kilts as they initiated a vigorous jogging-in-place dance step. The rest began to move, and glorious chaos broke loose. The four groups circled the fire together, each man dancing to his own inner spirit. A lean, muscular, youthful dancer, his face masked in smooth black fabric with glittering shells above the eye holes, began to leap side-to-side, swaying his torso in deep lateral bends, holding his lightning sticks up, and rattling his towering multi-pronged headdress.

            His athleticism and physical power was so extraordinary, and the surge of life force through him so raw and electric, Mae felt it in her body. Jamie had said, lighting will strike your bones. It did. She was mesmerized. Each dancer who passed in front of the singers danced with a burst of force and passion, as if the spirits they personified possessed them.

            The boy clowns in ragged shorts, ranging from scrawny little fellows of seven or eight to a big, fat lad of around twelve, also moved with greater vitality when they neared the drummers, comically exaggerating their steps. The fat boy was good, and he made a few people laugh with some secret joke he conveyed in mime. On the edge of the crowd, two tiny children with sticks in their hands imitated the dancers, serious in their endeavor, as absorbed as the men and boys in the ceremony.

            From the direction of the long arbor and the family tipis, a procession silently appeared, the beginning of the girls’ coming of age ceremony. The medicine men, the four young women in beaded, fringed white deerskin dresses, and their godmothers walked slowly into the big tipi behind the drummers. The moment made Mae catch her breath. She was in the presence of something sacred, archetypal and outside of time.

Part three to come: an African village dance—of sorts—in Hillsboro, New Mexico.

Dancing in New Mexico Part One

This is going to take two or three posts to cover, because dancing has roles in both social life and spiritual life here. It plays a big part in my books, too, because dancing is how Jamie communicates when he experiences life at its highest intensity, as in the Santa Fe Bandstand scene in Shaman’s Blues. I’m a barely adequate ballroom dancer myself, but I enjoy it anyway, especially the flow when I have a partner who can lead, and I love to watch people who are better at it than I am.

Part one: The perfect partners.

No matter what kind of music is playing, there are people who will dance to it, and dance well, whether the Santa Fe Chiles are playing Dixie jazz and swing dancers from the Rhythm Project are cutting loose in creative kinetics at Bandstand, or the Bill Hearne Trio is playing “alt country” at the Best of Santa Fe block party, inspiring older couples to dance in the elegant flow that embodies a whole history of partnership.

Sometimes at Sparky’s in Hatch it takes an icebreaker to people out on the floor, or the right kind of music—Western Swing. Then those couples who dance the way old married couples finish each other’s thoughts start moving their boots. When the Renegades played a couple of weekends ago, I enjoyed one man’s smile even more than I enjoyed dancing with my dancing buddy. We took to speaking of this tall, gray-bearded, Hispanic cowboy as The Smile. He bowed over his lady, cradling her in the shade of his body, with a look of radiant bliss glowing over her shoulder. If only she could have seen that look.

When I left the Best of Santa Fe block party Saturday to go pick up my car at the Firestone place on St. Francis, the man who’d taken care of my car knew where I’d been and he came dancing out of the garage with a smile on his face as if there were music. I danced too. Why not?

This is my new favorite song:


Picture the older guy, Bill Hearne, and the two guys to his right, as a trio, outdoors under a mixed cloudy-sunny monsoon season sky, the Railyard water tower to one side, and the free food and coffee and books and other festivities to the other side, and in front of them those perfect partners swaying along.

Next installment, sacred dances.

Coyote on Broadway

Broadway, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, that is. I saw the little canine trotting past the Bank of the Southwest after Art Hop on Saturday night.  He seemed in a hurry to get out of town, crossing our main drag and hustling down a side street toward the river. I hear his relatives across the river in the desert sometimes. The other night they were singing on Turtleback Mountain. They’re so musical, especially compared to the dogs who try to answer.  A few years ago I used to hear a donkey who tried to sing back—not very melodious either. Wildness has a sweeter voice.

One thing I love about my town is its closeness to the wild, though I’d rather not join the ranks of people who’ve found rattlesnakes in their yards. I can walk to the Rio Grande in a few blocks, the same route the coyote took, and watch the bats come out over the wetlands at sunset, or go into the desert and look for tarantulas coming out of their burrows after a monsoon rain. I only found one once—a velvety multi-legged shadow half-way out of her hole. When I run in the desert at Elephant Butte I encounter quails and lizards and jackrabbits on the trail, and very seldom any of my own species. I once surprised a mule deer that was sleeping under a juniper. With its size and the speed of its explosive take-off, it gave me an equal start, but probably a lot more pleasure than I gave it.

Santa Fe has a little wildlife, too. Gunnison’s prairie dogs are inclined to live there. The city has a relocation program, catching and releasing them into select wilderness areas, but there’s still a little dog town above the almost waterless Santa Fe River on Paseo.  I like walking past them. They’re smart, and have a complex language. I’ve heard that they recognize people and talk about us. Standing upright at the edge of their holes, paws folded on their little bellies, they stare back at me a long time before they scamper and squeak. Maybe to them I’m the wildlife that’s wandered into their city.



A Visit to my Old Home, the City Different, Santa Fe

My favorite statue of St. Francis in the royal city of his holy faith is the one near City Hall where he’s shown as a lean, bearded monk standing and looking down at a prairie dog, while the little creature looks up at him in that curious, fearless way they have, paws on belly, making eye contact. I spent a little time with this sculpture while waiting for the street party in front of City Hall that never materialized on June 28th—or maybe it did, but every time I wandered back in hopes of free music, there was still only a block of Marcy Street closed with orange cones, security people on the corners, and a lone man break dancing to recorded hip hop. I suppose the live music eventually showed up, but I went to Blue Rain to look at new works there, came back—no party—and wandered off and discovered the new RC Gorman gallery. Still a lovely evening, being a tourist where I used to live.

One of my goals on this trip—along with a workshop and classes at Yoga Source—was to see the Judy Chicago exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Chicago has lived in New Mexico for twenty years. With her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, she has created some powerful, thought-provoking images in Nuclear Wasted, and in the Holocaust Project, some portions of which are in the NMMA exhibit. http://www.judychicago.com/gallery.php?name=Holocaust+Project+Gallery

This article in New Mexico Magazine made me want to see it, and it describes the nature of her work so well, I won’t try to do it over. She’s astoundingly versatile, and  can shake you up, charm you, or touch your spirit.


After leaving the museum, I walked around town letting intuition guide me. The local artists’ show behind the bank downtown is always good. I acquired a tiny print by Joseph Comellas that is so radiant and deep I could fall into it. I’ve loved his work for years, and wish I could find images online to share. His style is unlike anyone else’s. I could try saying O’Keefe-like for colors and landscapes, but he uses shapes very differently. Each of his paintings is an experience, a moment in light and land so intense it’s like he found the true nature of the place in colors seen by the soul.  I kept turning around to look at the print as I wrote this. It makes my heart glow.

When I stopped by Whole Foods, the small one on St. Francis, I noticed a bookshelf on my way out. It was labeled Good Reads for a Good Cause. Donated books are sold to support something charitable—Whole Planet Foundation projects, I think. I felt compelled to put a copy of Shaman’s Blues on that shelf. (I happened to have books in my trunk.) If you’re in Santa Fe you can grab it for a very low price if it’s still there. When I donated the book I wasn’t thinking about the fact that a scene in it takes place in that store. I like to imagine the reaction of the reader who snags that bargain when they get to that part.

I ended the long weekend with Country Night at Bandstand on Monday. As the crowd warmed up, dancers of all ages and ethnicities and shapes and sizes gradually filled the dance space in front of the gazebo on the Plaza, partners’ arms weaving a pattern of twists and turns in time with the music. I got a kick out of three little girls in red cowgirl boots, and their mother who had apparently taught them how to dance. The children partnered with each other, or with Mom, who looked like the happiest woman on the planet that night. If I still lived in Santa Fe, I’d go to just about every Bandstand show all summer.

Check out these acts:



The YouTube video is last year’s performance by Sim Balky and the Honky Tonk Crew, and it’s the whole show. You can see the dancers, the Plaza, and of course one heck of a good band.