We (the audience) are standing in a loose circle in a big open warehouse space (corrugated walls, concrete floor, fluorescent work lights). It doubles as the late-night bar/venue/dancefloor for the TBA festival, and so it feels a little bit like a nightclub with all the lights turned on — landmarks that should be familiar are made unfamiliar again without their usual dressing. There is no pretense of hiding the unused late-night stage, the bar menu painted ten feet high on a back wall, the backstage area built out of pipe and drape.
The particular patch of floor we’ve gathered around isn’t much different from any other patch of floor. Some people stand with their arms folded, some chat quietly with their neighbors or fiddle with their phones. Others post up on the runway that’s been built for the drag extravaganza later that night, treating it like one long bench. One man sits crosslegged in what might be considered the front row, arms extended with his palms face-up on his knees. Festival volunteers, myself included, hang back as the circle forms, expands, adapts.
So we-the-audience wait, and then they are there: a shoulder-to-shoulder silent pack of women, walking calmly to the edge of our audience circle. They are all dressed head-to-toe in different shapes and textures of black. A span of ethnicities, a far greater span in ages. Each woman has a white kerchief wrapped around her head and knotted in the front.
One by one, walk in among us: slowly, calmly, focused. Blank, almost. They find their places, facing us and each other at angles. It takes a while but soon they are all stationed exactly, a pattern of women.
All is still, and then it begins: half the women throw their heads back, half throw them forward, chins to chest, and with this movement the group lets loose a cry/yell/grunt in a steady rhythm. Forward, back. Forward, back. Sharp and precise like chopping wood. They are loud in ways women are not often seen to be or allowed to be loud in public, and it is thrilling.
This kind of noise takes effort. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes in, and we (the audience) can feel it. The performers are sweating. One or another falters just a little, her cry a half-second behind, but the others’ voices buoy her back into the rhythm. Some have balled their fists. One woman’s kerchief loosens and slips down. It obscures her face entirely for a few cries before it settles around her neck for the rest of the performance. The rhythm never once falters.
We (the audience) stand still. Some people are moving a little bit, consciously and unconsciously. I see one woman with tears in her eyes and her hand pressed over her heart. Still the women in the middle of the circle press on, their feet rooted and solid on the ground.
And then suddenly it’s twenty, twenty-five minutes in. In groups, they fall silent. Only one woman is left, rocking back and forth with her cries. So many voices, whittled to just one in all this space. And then it is still again.
Now they are throwing their hands up in joy! They are clapping, they are whooping with happiness, they are wheeling around the circle and straight-up busting a move — not in any choreographed sense, in a hello-we-are-alive way. Alive, and what a marvelous thing that is. Young and old. Red-faced and grinning. At their clear and delighted invitation, we the audience clap and whoop along with them. They dance and dance and run and dance. We dissolve into them, or they dissolve into us. We, all of us, in a circle, alive and cheering.