Remember the last time you saw a toddler dancing? A little one lights up the room when he or she moves to music. Dancing, they find out, is one of the better benefits of learning to stand upright.
In contrast, my high school farewells — one in Australia and a prom in the States — were not exactly joyous dancing experiences. The prom featured a bridesmaid-style dress that seemed a good idea at the time. I haven’t worn lemon gingham since. High school dances in general were confusing. I did enjoy dancing but was too young and too plain for the zeitgeist. There was supposed to be a sexy dynamic going on somewhere. I don’t think I was the only one who felt left out.
Five years later, on my way back from the women’s protest camp at Pine Gap in the desert, I went to Confest — a Back to Earth Festival — in the small town of Wangaratta in rural Victoria. I went on an impulse, hopping off a truck I’d hitched a ride in. My hair was cut like that of a new Buddhist nun and my eyes were dark and wild. At Confest, some kind people welcomed me to their campsite, others loaned me a blanket. I was a little shocked by the public toilets: drop toilets along a raised platform with no privacy. During one of the concerts at Confest, I remember getting up on the stage and dancing— friendly strong hands helped hoist me up there. I wore a giant multicoloured t-shirt with a woman symbol on it and a pair of knickers underneath. I felt free to express myself. I felt myself to be a unique, bright energy. I wondered if Janis Joplin felt a bit like that.
For a while in my twenties, I was part of a belly-dancing troop. I love the movements I learned in Arabic dance. If I have any physical grace nowadays, I may owe it to those belly-dancing years from twenty years ago. The troop had women of all ages and shapes and sizes, all beautiful dancers. Once we had a gig, dancing at a shopping mall in Sydney We danced to hundreds of people. Our audience watched us from the floor of the mall and from mezzanines four floors up. They loved us. However, later the management banned our troop from dancing there again. Among other objections, we were told that our blouses looked too much like bras. Linda, the most slender group member, commented, “I bet if we were all size 8, advertising beer with tiny shorts on, no one would have objected.” She was probably right. How lucky I am to have experienced dancing by campfires where the spirit of the dance was what mattered, not whether there was lace in your top.
The first time I danced bare-breasted was at a ceremonial dance with women from the remote western Kimberley. By then I was in my late twenties. After some discussion with the other women, my sista artist painted me in ochre with emu designs (a nod to my currawong totem). It was a day of nurturing and connection. Lots of laughing, too. Our breasts are important for feeding children and for ceremony. I can only dance the most basic steps of the inma — the ceremonial dance of the central and western desert. The women do a little jump that pushes up a cloud of red dust and sends up a vibration through the body, a thud with a shimmer. My dust clouds are not up to scratch but I enjoy myself.
In my forties, I had the honour of being painted up for the fire dance one night in the remote South Australian desert. The stage was a plateau of red sand under a starry night. People sat on the ground around fires that warmed them. A set of headlights lit the stomping ground stage. Performers were painted up in the dark behind bushy mulga trees. Claudia and I saw baby emus — little boys and slightly bigger boys, their chests painted with glowing white stripes — following their nurturing father. The old man had a long white beard. His body was elegant, with perfect rhythm born of a lifetime dancing.
Later, in 2014, I watched a different style of dance on carpet at the conference dinner of the Australian Lesbian Medical Association. I sat for awhile, watching the women dance. There was one young woman in particular who lived to dance, brown curls bobbing and a smile you could see across the room. She reminded me that I love to dance. Why sit when there’s so much fun to be had?
A couple of times, I, too, have been the first up to dance. At the Australian Indigenous Doctors Conference held by the beach in Adelaide last year, I got to warm up the dance floor with one of the prettiest American Indian doctors you’d ever seen. We were soon joined by others, including my wife and three or four potential amours for him, happy couples and free-as-a-bird singles. There was a rainbow over that dance-floor too.
The other day, in the small town where I live and work now, I came across a woman who used to teach belly-dancing. Women travelled thousands of kilometres to attend her classes at weekend dance festivals. “I used to teach belly-dancing, too,” I said, smiling. “Who was your teacher?” she asked. When I told her my teacher’s name her smile became wider still. “She was my teacher too! She’s fantastic! She came all the way to our big dancing festival, years ago.” The world of dance is small. Our conversation turned to music and costumes: sequinned bras and belts, silver-threaded scarves, brilliant jalabiya. We should all dance more, even if it’s only on the inside sometimes.