Who are These Who Dance?
He is draped in color and sees only darkness. He inhales his own warm vapor, every hot and heavy breath tangible in the confines of his robes. The boy of fourteen, who once thought these robes only vibrant and beautiful, now finds them a great burden. Sweat sticks to him, gathering in pools on his skin, flowing down in rivulets down the bridge of his nose, his lip, his brow. He blinks it away but it continues pouring, stinging. The robes he thought light in the comfort of home now cling to him, soaked. The layers of rich fabric are unwanted insulation in the noon heat. The necklaces his mother made, with amulets of lacquered wood, polished stone, and carved ivory dig into his flesh. The cords rub his neck raw under the weight of his vestments. The perfume of burned incense is now cloying where once it was fragrant. The odor of sweat mingles with it and their intensity is almost choking.
With each shuffle of his feet, needles of light penetrate the mesh of his hood, the shifting glare stinging his eyes like pinpricks. He is grateful that it keeps the hot dust from his eyes, but he can barely see his next step. He has traded the glare of the scorching sun and the gusts of baked air for a dark, suffocating humidity
He cannot imagine having the strength to do what he must.
He retreats into the memory of when he first realised that this would be his responsibility.
The living room is musty, but cool. The scent of old wood lingers in the still air. Shafts of light illuminate a storm of dust, specks shifting in and out of visibility.
Atanda sits at the dining table, head craned over his homework. The pencil scratches are slow, his mind preoccupied with thoughts of soccer in the neighborhood courtyard. His imagination is tempted by the yellow light which seeps under the drapes, their drab floral pattern hiding the day’s joy. His mother’s eyes catch him staring from where she sits sewing near the window, and he averts his eyes, bending over the paper again, his daydreaming foiled. He rests his chin on the table, arms outstretched, and yawns too loudly.
The scratch of a match breaks the languorous atmosphere. A yellow flicker ignites red incense, giving rise to wisps of blue smoke. The acrid scent of sandalwood fills the house, and Atanda’s nose wrinkles at the spicy, earthy smoke. He turns in his seat and looks through the doorway, past the entrance hall, and finds his father kneeling at the family shrine. Incense clasped in his hands, he passes the smoke over the statues of the gods while reciting the names of his ancestors. Atanda’s mother rises to help him take down his robes from their rack on the wall.
They work together, gingerly removing the weighty layers of cloth three generations in the making. Each piece of the ensemble laid on the carpeted floor is more intricate than the last. This is the first time Atanda has seen them separated. His father places his headpiece on the dining table, an imposing square flattop dyed a striking crimson, from which hang embroidered lappets. A veil of golden mesh is front and center, and come the day of the egungun masquerade dance it will frame his father’s hidden face. Together, his parents set to the ritual of cleaning. Atanda’s mother attends to the outermost layer, polishing the design sewn into the fabric. Topaz colored beads depict a mosaic of floral patterns on an azure background.
It is forbidden to put these robes on until the day of the performance, so to judge how the new additions to the ensemble will look, Atanda’s father holds a sleeve in each hand and extends his arms to either side. On the day of the dance it will conceal his whole body.
When all is put away, his mother smooths the thin innermost robe with a flourish like a blanket. She folds the familiar white and indigo stripes into a neat square. His father finally turns to him, a gentle smile on his face. “Ata, it is time for you to learn”.
Sound is muffled inside the ensemble, but the boy can hear the crowd now. Many people anticipating the dance stand idly in the shade of low buildings and dead trees. But as Atanda and his father move deeper into the market he hears a more layered sound, a cacophony of commerce. He hears the hawkers yelling from behind their stalls, selling sliced fruit from rickety carts, or carrying bags loaded with bottled water.
Even the entourage of neighborhood musicians who surround the father and son have trouble drowning out the noise. The young women banging their drums and singing praises all blend into the market atmosphere. The crowd is proving more than a match for the group. But this dance has been done before, and only Atanda is unfamiliar with its negotiations. The praise singers know the rhythm of bodies and when to press ahead, pull back, cleave a path for the Yoruba priest and his son the initiate. And so those impatient with the procession pass by and through the group, while the devout stand and watch, singing all the while.
But through the slits in his veil, Atanda can only see that the once orderly perimeter of musicians surrounding him and his father has broken. Turning backwards, many of the entourage are split by the tide of the crowd, and the only direction left for him is forward. As he worries about losing sight of his father, Atanda reaches out and takes his hand.
“Keep walking Atanda,” his father yells over the din, as a man jostles by him. “You are a robed priest, they will part for you.”
But the words do little to reassure him. The sun bears down on the street, its unwelcome heat intruding even upon the shade. As Ata looks up, it hits him with full force, the brunt of the glare penetrating his veil. The cracked pavement threatens to trip him, but he knows that he must simply walk and keep walking.
To calm himself, he recites his father’s lessons, “When it comes your time to dance, you must block out everything.”
Atanda’s father often remarked that as a child he had always been a good listener. When he was young he listened to his father talk about the world, of which he knew some things but the school knew more. Things any child might ask, like why the sky is blue. As he got older he asked more questions. Like why people fought each other, all over the country. His father knew the answers, but not as well as he felt his son should, so he often didn’t give Ata a straight answer. It was something he entertained for a child’s curiosity, but they were subjects he said no one knew much about. His father would much rather talk about his faith.
Of that the boy listened all his life, every myth, legend and cautionary tale. Of Oya the storm bringer, Ogun the ironsmith and Orunmila the all-knowing. The only child listened to his father talk about the history of their religion and their land, and soon Atanda learned that they were inseparable.
“Our people are a people long coveted,” Atanda’s father used to tell him in his priestly tenor.
“Many came for us, whether it be for our land, our riches or sadly, our people. They came bearing jewels and silks to trade for women and children, wielding ink and parchment to name the ways we can be set against each other, and they granted us the gift of steel, only to shackle our people in it.”
Once, during a quiet dinner, Atanda asked his father what he knew about the faith of others. The boy knew most of his classmates were different. Prayed at different times, different places, wore different clothes whenever they had their festivals. In that schoolyard way he sometimes felt like taunting his classmates by saying that the feast days in his neighborhood were the best. His family played the best music, his father wore the best clothes, and everyone danced rather than standing in place for prayer. But he was outnumbered, and such comments would not have made any friends. And so he rarely spoke to his friends at school about religion.
But other times, when he walked with his mother to visit the market, or on his way home from school, people made their faith known to him. On days other than the egungun, it seemed like they made the most noise of anyone in the city. And their noise was often set against each other, which made them shout even louder, drum even faster.
“That is how they spread their faith, their desert-born faith. In the past, sometimes they would leave peacefully, but more often than not they were eager to claim victory over us,” his father would say.
“They have given us much, but taken more. I cannot fault them for this, because that is what their spirits tell them must be done. But I do lament the scars left.
“They are like two brothers fighting. Of the same cloth, but angry at each other, long bitter over old wounds with neither willing to give ground. Righteous to a fault.” Atanda recalled variations of these phrases scrolling across the news channel when his father watched TV.
“What does righteous mean father?” Ata asked once.
He replied chuckling, “Few people agree on that.” Then he turned to his son, “Tell me Ata, if you were a king of ages past, what would you do to calm two quarreling brothers?”
“Hmm. I would try to find their parents. And ask them to help control their unruly children.”
His father’s smile is brief but warm. “A hopeful idea. Alas, their parents are long gone. Frankly, even if their prophets returned to set the record straight I don’t think anyone would listen. So the family is broken, left to fight over their memory. ”
“But ours is still together isn’t it? Our family, I mean. When you dance you say grandfather speaks through you, and mother says her parents talk to her in her sleep.” Another chuckle at that.
“Yes, our people’s family is large and our lineage is strong. Like a chain stretching into the past, the past beyond our sight.
“But, on their own, even the strongest chains sway in the wind.”
“That is one thing we can say about the beliefs of our neighbors, it forms tight chains which link together. Even if the net can sometimes hold others down.
“But our way is different Ata,” his father said. “We dance to keep our family’s chain strong, remembered, and alive. For without us your grandfather and his father and all of our people long past would have no voice.”
Returning from the memory to blink the sweat from his lashes, Ata lingers on the last thing his father said that day. That first day he was taught how to move, to dance the egungun without tripping over himself. His father had held him by the shoulders and looked into his eyes. He held that stare for a long time before speaking again.
“When it comes your time to dance Ata, you must block out everything. There is only one thing to listen to, and that is the ancestors. When you are in your robes you are no longer my Ata. You are the ancestors on Earth. Their voice speaks with no words, they speak through the dance.
“You bear the weight of the robes on your shoulders and the names of the ancestors on your lips. That is the burden we carry, and we carry it well.”
Now leading his son through the thinning crowd, the jostlers give way, but are soon replaced by the outer ring of spectators eager to welcome the priest and his son. Atanda is anxious about his robes tripping him up. How his father kept so calm when surrounded that way he would never know.
There are a few oddities among the crowd Ata never noticed before. Tourists who skirt the periphery of the courtyard on rickshaws. They raise their cameras high, shaded eyes peering over the heads of the crowd, unwilling to breach the sea of people. Trying to find positions to record the performances of each family attending the egungun. For the first time, Atanda realises that he will be counted among them. It quickens the blood.
Pushing past through the corridor of stalls, they finally make it to the plaza. All the participating families are already there, and the anticipation is palpable. They stand stoically at the head of the crowd, amongst the spectators ringed around the market square. Only their entourages move to and fro between them, cleaning their robes or tuning their own instruments. Atanda feels the faces behind the veils staring at him as he walks behind his father.
Many familiar ensembles and some entirely new ones greet the two. Ata’s father surely notices these and yet he treats them as old friends. A troupe of brothers wear their patchwork proudly, the contours of their face showing through the thin fabric. Another dons layered lappets in emerald and yellow, like silk scales. There are men dressed not in cloth at all, rather an intricate vestment of feathers painstakingly stitched on. The circle of audience members stands waiting. The robed priests stare as Atanda walks past them. At the edge of the circle, his father steps aside and sweeps his arm towards their newest initiate, as if to tell the audience, “My son.”
Atanda walks alone onto the circle of cracked earth and dry dust. The stage of the spirits. The boy takes a last look behind him. Though he can’t see his father’s face, he can imagine the piercing stare behind the veil. There can be no words of encouragement now. Atanda understands that he and his father may no longer profane the message of the ancestors with their own voices. The praise singers chorus, “May our ancestors make their will known through him.” Atanda has no choice but to dance.
To dance and listen. The crunch of sand under his feet. The whoosh of wind under robes. The tinkle of beads and chains harmonize with the slapping of tassels and stomp of feet. The drums grow louder, the flute shriller and the beat rises. With speed and volume the music comes from all sides, and to Ata it seems as if every entourage of every priest has joined forces to welcome him to the dance. Every second he can spare he looks back to his father but through the mesh of the hood he gets less than a glimpse before he is stolen away by the rhythm.
And still it builds, and so too does the heat, the sweat, the nausea. He has been told these are ephemeral, that these will pass, but they suffuse him and his robes give them no chance to escape. The weight of his garb causes him to teeter when landing from a jump, or stumble too far after a spin, and as the mistakes pile on he knows the rhythm will not stop for him.
He tries reciting prayer, tries to enter that trance father described, tries to see that length of chain stretching into the past. But the weight is too much, and the darkness inside the robe gives way to visions. Visions of himself being the last link in the chain, except that he is a weight at the end of the chain, and now as he sways dizzied by the heat, so too does the chain sway. And it threatens to snap.
With each passing second the music grows more discordant, and at one point he almost stumbles into one side of the crowd. He tries to play it off by drifting away as quickly as he can but then he finds himself surrounded no matter where goes. The people are all around him, and he is unsure which direction to move next. He can only spin faster, faster and hope they do not notice any mistakes.
But as he does, the dust, the colour of rich clay or rusted iron, is kicked up in the scorching air. The breeze does not feel blessed. It feels like a flaming wind, like a gust billowing out from his mother’s oven to assault his face with warmth. Its clouds sting the eyes and choke the throat. And then he notices, he has been spinning and spinning in the same spot. Raising dust in a spiral he realizes he has seen before. The dry season has cracked the earth. The deep red clay is exposed. And now he has spun it into a rust-coloured brushstroke.
And then Atanda trips.
He has never seen a priest collapse during the egungun before. But in that faltering instant, the boy’s mind was dragged back to the only time he had ever seen a robed priest on the ground.
It was seven years ago. The marketplace barely murmured. Atanda’s unblinking eyes were downcast. Half an hour had passed since they had come upon the scene, and by now his father had stopped shielding his eyes. When they first arrived, Ata complied and didn’t look, but he couldn’t resist peeking through the gaps in his father’s palm. That time seemed far away now. His gaze was wider then. Looking at the crowd shifting around the perimeter of the police tape, the boy’s expression glazed over while his mind raced. He stood there like that for a long time, and so must’ve his father, who kept his arm on the boy’s shoulder for as long as he needed. Atanda appreciated his father’s patience.
Afterwards, he simply asked, “Who did this?”
It was a question he had heard many answers to while he stood staring. Names were yelled out, in anger and in grief. The police tried to drown these out by yelling over the crowd, getting them to clear the area. But people stubbornly whispered their accusations instead, the sounds rippling like a wave through the crowd. Atanda listened and he had no idea which was the right name, the name responsible. As always, when he needed to know something but didn’t, he needed an answer from his father.
“I do not know son, and neither do the people here,” came the reply. “They say they just found him, that whoever did it must have struck during another dance. While the people were distracted and the outer edges of the market less crowded.”
The dance. Yes, Atanda saw the heap of crumpled robes, checkered bone white and midnight black, and knew the man had certainly been at the dance.
“They say he was walking home.”
“Yes,” his father said, kneeling down to meet his eyes, “he might have been.”
Ata lifted his head and stared forward. Through the slivers between the crowd, he saw flashes of the scene, reminding him again of that first virgin glance past his father’s fingers. At first he did not know what he saw. Discarded laundry, or strewn about clothes crossed his mind. It was the red that stopped his roving eyes.
But looking again, he took note of the mud brown which crept across the black cloth. The brushstroke of rust-color across the paving stones. How the folds of untarnished cloth fell over what could only be shoulders, but did not conceal the back of a neck. The dark skin was stained with the same rust color. Despite how flat and still the robes lay, the red would not let Ata forget there was a dead man underneath them.
“Ata,” his father said. Putting himself between his son and the crowd, he squatted to the boy’s eye level. Blocking them from view, he waited for his son’s pupils to meet his own.
“I do not know who killed this man nor why a boy of your age must see such things. And if you must feel saddened, then do so, for it is only right. But I need you to promise me one thing.”
“Do not be frightened. It is easy to see the people we love, or even your own father, in the same position as that man. Easy to listen to what these people believe and chase ghosts, or worse, punish the innocent. But that is not what we will do. Fear closes your ears, son, even to your own voice.”
Turned away from the scene, the boy could look up. He could not see through his father’s veil, but he tried to meet his father’s eyes. Atanda had just seen him cheered on by hundreds, praised by all those who believed the dance was holy, truly holy. But the boy did not care about his ancestors at that moment. As he looked past the brim of the headdress, past the curtain of cloth, Atanda searched for his father the same way he searched for why that man was lying face down on the market floor.
“Promise me, Ata.”
Atanda met his gaze. In those eyes, he searched for an answer.
Those words reach out to the boy now in free fall, ending the memory that arrested his attention.
Atanda’s hands reach the ground first. He braces. There is a pregnant pause. He leaps from his feet and soars.
He moves harder, faster. He becomes a whirling blur. A rainbow in motion, kicking up the dust. He plays with his elusiveness, snatching away his robes as they soar past the outstretched hands of the crowd. He dances past them, touching everyone with the hem of his flying robes, the breeze passing over and through the crowd. He moves clockwise, brushing past the outstretched arms of the spectators, and when he is finished and they cheer, he moves counter clockwise, an encore of blessing.
His revolution takes him back to the center of the circle, cutting a path through the raised dust at the inner edges of the crowd. And where the dark red spiral stains his memory, he sweeps it aside like dust in the wind, and the breeze carries it off. Now Atanda feels as one with his robes, with the dance, they rise and fall as he does and so does the crowd. With each leap and landing as graceful as anyone the audience has ever seen, the young man is infused with an understanding of his forefathers’ purpose.
His movements reenact for the crowd their fears and their dreams, their failings and successes. Every achievement in the town, the neighborhood, the family of each of the spectators is put in touch with the ancestors’ will in a dialogue of motion. A mother who has just given birth pushes to the front of the crowd and asks for a blessing. Atanda touches the swaddled baby’s forehead.
A middle-aged mechanic yells out that his mother-in-law has cheated him and his new wife out of their dowry. Atanda takes on the imperious stride of the man’s long-buried father to scold him for his greed, and from what reserve of knowledge the teenage boy drew such an accurate rendition was a secret only his fellow robed priests knew.
Atanda’s dance contains all this and more, all told through movement. Only when the musicians accompanying this ecstasy of color and sound finally drum their last note does Atanda release the hold the spirits have on him. As the restless dust begins to settle and the footprints in the dirt fade, the end of Atanda’s performance is met with raucous applause. Finally caught in the arms of his entourage at the edge of the courtyard, he hardly has time to take a breath before mad fluting, drumming and chanting begins again. Time for the next priest to dance.
When the crowd disperses at the end of the ceremony, the other priests follow suit, shuffling away from the center of the courtyard. Their robes, a moment ago given a life of their own, now hang from their frames, as human as those who wear them.
Atanda’s own robes have not fared too well either. The dust collects in the folds, dulling the vibrant dye. On his haunches, he sits balanced on the edge of a ring of bricks encircling a lonely patch of grass. A scrawny tree grows from it, offering meagre shade. He can’t afford to damage the robes by sitting on them, so the heat of the sun-baked bricks easily penetrates the undergarments he has on.
Across the courtyard, his father is talking with another priest, a taller, thinner man who wears a bull’s skull as a headdress. The man seems to congratulate his father and more than once they both turn to look at Atanda. After all the customary farewells, the boy’s father returns and claps his son on the back. Even through the layers, the force catches the winded boy by surprise.
“Well done, Ata. Well done.”
As father and son move through the thinning crowd with entourage in tow singing their farewell tune, a voice suddenly rings out, “Dancer, dancer over here!”
The high pitched call gives the father and son both pause, and they turn to look for a child’s voice. Running towards them from the opposite end of the courtyard is a girl no older than six. Her arms pinwheel in that way small children run, thumping her sandaled feet on the ground. Squinting, she amusingly sneezes at the dust she’s kicked up. By the time she makes it to Atanda she is panting.
Atanda’s father is first to approach.
“You’ve got spirit little one,” he says, crouching in front of her. “What did you want to tell us so badly?”
Looking at Atanda, the girl takes out a water bottle. “Tell me priest,” she begins before taking a large gulp, “I’ve heard people shout at you, call you names, my mother even tells me that people sometimes throw rocks during these dances. At least in towns where there aren’t so many of you. So why do you dance?”
“Well little one, the answer depends on whether or not you are a good listener,” Ata replies. Having a question thrown back at her seems to give the girl pause, before she nods emphatically.
“My father tells me that we are a people,” Atanda says, “with a tradition as rich as our clothes.” He traces his finger along the patterns his mother weaved into his robes.
“We have long been coveted,” he continues. “But through all obstacles, we dance to find strength in our lineage,” he says, kneeling down to meet the girl’s eyes.
In their shine Atanda sees a familiar understanding, “For it stretches into the past, like the strongest of chains.”
Biographical Note: Nicholas Dharmadi is an aspiring fiction writer from Indonesia currently studying English and Creative Writing at New York University. He has work experience in publishing, copyediting and translation and is interested in the study of religion, philosophy and history. His work has been published in West 10th, NYU’s literary journal, and is forthcoming in Asian American Writer’s Workshop