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.

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