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.
This is not me!