Barbelfish Balkan Band


The Balkan band on the small wooden stage tunes up.  One accordion, one violin, two dumbeks (Arabian drums), a tambura (a sort of Balkan mandolin), and a tupan–the big drum.  The three drums pick up a familiar beat: TA-ta-tiki-tiki-ta-ta-ta.  “That’s the belly-dancing rhythm,” I say to my friend as we link hands and join the line doing a cocek.

My feet follow the sequence of steps, but my thoughts go back to my one performance as a belly-dancer for the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) back in 1974.

My co-worker, Kate, in the Graduate Department at UCSB set up the gig for me.  She was a member of SCA, a seneschal.  I had been taking belly-dancing classes with Tiny Ossman, wife of David Ossman of the Firesign Theater.  She and the other students liked to get stoned before class.  I didn’t, so I arrived just at starting time.

I had spent days making my costume.  For the bra, I had to buy a satin underwire brassiere.  Then I painstakingly sewed gold coins on the cups and straps.  I made the skirt with red chiffon attached to a wide elastic belt, also covered with gold coins.  From an import store, I acquired part of a camel trapping made of colored red, green, and brown yarn, spangled with bells.  This jingled delightfully when I swung my hips.

For me, the two hardest parts of belly-dancing were coordinating the zills (finger cymbals) while dancing and making my arms fluid like waves.  I practiced upstairs in the rented house in Isla Vista, where I lived with four other college students. 

Kate came one day to take photos.  She was very excited that Ursula LeGuin was coming to the SCA festival.  I hadn’t heard of LeGuin, and I secretly thought the members of the SCA were a little cuckoo.  But I was excited and nervous to perform.

The only worry about weather in Santa Barbara is the fog that blows in off the ocean at night and hangs on past noon. Clear skies and sunshine greeted the SCA gathering by mid-afternoon.  I had my phonograph and record ready (no iPhones or laptops back then).  While I waited for show time, I took in the festival.

People were dressed in all sorts of period costumes.  The styles fell somewhere along medieval and Renaissance lines.  Men in chain mail, women with bosoms bursting out of brocade, laced tops, priests in brown robes wandered the green field.  Kate, in her gray tunic and chain belt of jangling keys, hurried about.

When my music began, I stepped into the circle of the audience, clanging my zills.  The dance proceeded while part of me watched from somewhere else, waiting for it to be over.  The wind picked up my veil as I held it overhead, a plume of red against the green lawn. 

And then I finished in a scatter of applause. 

As I sat to slip on my sandals, I noticed blood.  The ball of my foot was torn in shreds.  I must have twisted my foot on something sharp—a beer tab? Glass? 

Kate procured a first aid kit.  As I doctored my foot, I considered the experience and concluded that solo performing was not for me. There was much more joy in dancing with others.

Almost fifty years later, I’m still dancing with others who love Balkan dance and music.

Photo by Warisa Lie on

This is not me!



Photo by SHVETS production on


She tilts her head, gazes unblinking.

Wisps of fine brown hair graze her high forehead.

Topaz stones wrapped in gold wire hang from her ears.

The silver butterfly with turquoise abdomen rests between her collarbones.


She is a tall woman, this reverend of spirit.

She has passed through her personal fires,

Walked on glowing coals, replanted in new states.

She listens in stillness while I fidget, examine my fingers,

Scratch my cheek, my neck.


The story I tell sounds like a long lament,

A symphony of anger, regret, confusion, loss

The list of adaptations, arrangements, assistance,

The done, would do, will do

Line up like dominoes.


She sighs, blinks like a smiling cat.

Perhaps, she says,

You are rearranging chairs

On the deck of the Titanic.

Photo by Lucas Pezeta on



Photo by Skitterphoto on


Three businessmen absorbed in their laptops are the only other passengers on this flight.  My seat is toward the front of the small private jet.

“My cousin David bought my ticket,” I tell the flight attendant.  “He’s really rich.”

The flight attendant isn’t interested.  “Landing in Paris,” he says, bored.

The plane does a sharp descent, ending in a bumpy landing.  I have with me my cat in a carrier, my guitar, and a rolling suitcase.

“Will you help me with my stuff?” I ask the flight attendant.

“No,” he says, turning away.

I struggle down onto the tarmac, where I no longer have a cat in a cage but a small curly-haired white dog on a blue leash.  The dog pulls the leash out of my hand and runs away.

I wonder how to say “catch him” in French.  I could call out “stop!” but the verb for “catch” isn’t accessible.  Do I know it in Spanish?  No.  Recouper? No.  Aha!  Attraper!

A woman waiting with her family intercepts the dog.  A pet carrier appears so I lock him in it.

Then I go into the crowded waiting area where people are standing because all the seats are taken. 

Where am I going?  I don’t know.  Somewhere in France?  Maybe to the Languedoc.  I’ve been reading about the early heretical Christians who once lived there.

So I sit on my suitcase and wait with my guitar and my dog.  Or is it a cat again?  It is too dark to see.



Photo by Nicole Michalou on


Who’s that coming through the old apple trees,

With her new red shoes and socks to her knees?

Quick, shut the cat away.

He makes her uneasy.

Offer her Cheerios or a stick of cheese.

Says dad, that cereal is sweet.

It’s only a treat at grandma’s house.


She builds toilets out of bristle blocks

for the dolls who live in the ding dong house.

We make cards together with hearts and dots.

Bath bubble hills and lilac clouds

Sing a song of soapy suds

Brush her hair, undo the knots.

Story time now at grandma’s house.