After ten months with an Antipodean address, it feels like I’ve finally landed in Australia. Sydney is a city similar to so many other cities in the world. Much like airports, cities each have their flavor, but apart from the predominate language you hear, it’s hard to tell where you are in the world. All the cities have tall buildings, people rushing in a swift current down the sidewalks, bumper to bumper traffic honking like so many geese. For the moment, I am able to block out all that and focus on the mud stripes, the pale handprints on brown skin, and be transported to a time when what mattered was a people’s connection to the Earth, to nature and her rhythms.
A line of men striped with mud paint, the colors of Earth, skin and soil (we all make up Earth in our varied palettes of brown) stand like a held breath, ready to leap into the sand circle. They are followed by the women draped in fur cloaks. Is that kangaroo? The low vibrating sounds of the didgeridoo call the Waang Djarii dancers forth, to dance the memories of the elders passed down over thousands of years. I’m at Homeground, a celebration of First Nations music and dance, taking place outside the Sydney Opera House. Five troupes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancers have come to compete for a grand prize of $15,000.
At the start I am distracted, held back from flowing into the dance, by the negativity surrounding me in the present. To my left, a man is annoyed at being asked to move back from the circle, and by the invasion of his personal space by others who are stepping past him. To my right, a woman is angry at another who sat in front of her in the space where we were told not to sit. She is shooting nasty epithets under her breath and making threats. I want to reach over and wrap my arms around this woman, pull her close to me and coo in her ear, “there, there. It’s ok. Let it go.” I’m afraid of having her vitriol turned on me.
I imagine how the woman in front may feel. She’s thrilled to have scored a front row seat for herself and her daughter. Then, hearing the hate being spewed from behind her, she fills with doubt and unease, wondering if she’s committed a social faux pas but not exactly sure. If she were to get up now, that would create a commotion in itself, and she’d have to go to the far back, behind the crowd, where her little daughter would have no chance of seeing the dancers. Maybe there is a thread of ancestry there, an inheritance she wants to share with the girl, and so she chooses to block out the nastiness.
As the Waang Djarii dance, the woman beside me quiets, turning her focus to the dancers. The women are waving branches of gum leaves, cleansing the space. As women it seems this is our sacred role through the ages. I’m not talking about housework, but of creating sacred space, in whatever form that may take. We do it as we nest and create homes and care for our families.
The next group are the Djaadjawan dancers from Yuin Country. As these eight women dance their dance of healing, I continue to think of the connectedness of all humankind. I imagine their healing being channeled out to the wide world, to Paris, Beirut, and Nigeria, to the Syrian refugees and all those people so full of fear that they want to block their borders, and to the angry people on either side of me, afraid of people invading their space and taking what they believe is rightfully theirs.
The women are beautiful, their faces, arms and legs, even their hair, striped in terra cotta and white mud. They are dancing the sacred feminine, they are the Wild Witch, the Blessed Mother, that same image that came to me on a mountain top in Utah, as we danced the Autumn Equinox, that petroglyph from the Fremont People, of the woman holding the spiral wheel. There was a time when all of our ancestors danced the spiral. The women before me now are dancing a continuous thread woven across the fabric of fifty thousand years. Me, I’m picking up dropped threads of an unraveled tapestry.
Now Yuin Ghoodjarga from Koomurri Nation slither into the circle. Their bodies painted with red and white stripes snaking over their chests and circling their forearms and calves, the young men send their electric current into the crowd.
Thika Billa from the Wiradjuri region, with their scarified chests painted in traditional orange symbols leap into the circle. They become kangaroos, jumping, scratching, frolicking, and nibbling on gum leaves.
The women then fill the circle with a joyous exuberance, wearing the same grass skirts, cowrie shells circling their heads, and carrying woven baskets that look like a summer handbag. This group steals the show with their spectacular performance, taking away the big check.
Watching these groups perform, even as my mind follows many threads of what our world is enduring today, I’m filled with hope for all of humanity. I feel a sense of awe at the power of human culture to endure. These people here today sharing their culture with us have held on to ancient traditions. They represent the oldest continuing, adaptive culture on earth. That is such an amazing and glorious thing! They have refused and still refuse to let their culture be killed off. They have survived the great white scourge. If they can do that, can’t we all together survive a handful of terrorists? I just keep thinking about how in the big scheme of things, we’re all in this together. We all belong to the human tribe. I wish we could all join the dance.