At one end of the field, in a mass of blue smoke, people in dusty hats and jackets swarmed the blazing fires. Not all were Aboriginal; some were suntanned park rangers, others pale-skinned school teachers with freckle-faced families; all decked out with blankets and picnics.
At the other end, just outside the rim of light, a row of bushes hid the backstage area; one side for men, and the other for women. Sylvia and Lesley had gone directly there, leaving Diana to make her way around the clusters of kids, dogs, and people from all over.
Dressed like a refugee from a ski slope, she manoeuvred herself past women in thin, cotton frocks and children in various stages of undress. She hugged her coat—in a minute, she’d be naked in front of all of them.
She wasn’t sure where or with whom she should sit, so she moved towards the front and stood awkwardly, hoping that Sylvia would be able to find her later. But Millie had already spotted her. She waved at her and indicated she join her in front under the fire-smog ceiling.
Diana weaved her way towards her, finding a place to squat between some watchful mothers and playful children. One willowy, doe-eyed girl stroked the head of a baby owl while her sister plaited her hair.
Millie seemed very pleased to see her. Diana decided it must have been the Alice-woman story that had impressed her. It certainly could not have been her performance at dance practice. And then she remembered she would be dancing in front of her. She could feel butterflies stirring in her stomach.
Close by, some old men laughed and talked with each other while tuning up their clap sticks. Did clap sticks get tuned? she wondered. Meanwhile she could feel Millie looking at her. The old woman still made her feel uncomfortable. It was not just that she was toothless and bearded, it was the way she seemed to look right through you.
When a chorus of voices broke out, the dogs were kicked off the dusty stage and a respectful hush rushed through the crowd. All eyes searched beyond the lit area.
A male figure finally emerged from the curtain of bushes and held a graceful pose.
Only the head moved in time to the clapping stick beat. As the sticks played louder and the male voices grew stronger, the figure stepped into the light. Scantily clad in a grass belt and feathered pouch, he held a thick, tall stick, wrapped in coloured wool.
“This is Bill’s welcoming dance.” Sylvia squatted beside her.
When the music paused, he stood quietly with his eyes cast down on the dusty ground. When it started again, he was transported. Looking this way and that, his feet were graceful, his legs lively. When the last chorus ended, he simply walked back into the darkness and re-appeared in the audience, laughing, with a coat flung around his shoulders.
There was no applause; once the music stopped, everyone went straight back to talking and laughing just as before. Even the dogs seemed to know they could have a tumble on the empty field again.
Sylvia stood up and looked towards the backstage end of the field. “When Lesley gives us the nod, we’ll go and get ready.”
Diana stood up, too. As she did, one of the butterflies rose and caught in her throat.
She tried to cough it out.
“There she is.” Sylvia nudged her. “Let’s go.”
It was brutally cold away from the fires and the crowd, but there was no backing out now. Lesley was waiting, hands on hips, beside the curtain of bushes.
“Welcome to the green room.” She hit Diana on the back.
Diana could feel Lesley’s big hands pushing her forward, directing her around the corner to an area behind the bush wall. She wanted to pull back from her and tell her she couldn’t go through with this, but suddenly she was standing in the middle of a scene that felt like it was thousands of years old. For a minute, she couldn’t get her breath. She felt giddy from a sense of déjà vu. She could feel herself dissociating. This could not be real. All these women standing naked, their brown skins glistening in the firelight.
“Nervous?” Sylvia asked.
The sound of Sylvia’s voice was reassuring. She knew this voice. This voice knew her. She did exist. She was here. This was real.
“Yep.” She looked around at the fire-lit faces. For a second, they all seemed familiar.
“So you oughtta be.” Lesley threw her a black nylon skirt. “You’re about to enter the Dreamtime.”
And that’s exactly what it felt like—a surreal dream scene, filled with the kind of people who only ever appear in dreams.
“Mary here will paint you up.” Lesley’s voice was as real as ever.
“Mary,” Diana echoed her name. Why did all the women have English names? And why did they all start with “M”?
Mary smiled at her, her white teeth beaming from her caramel face. Then she pointed a slender finger indicating that Diana undress.
Without hesitation, she obeyed; her body warmth pouring from her, like air from a leaking tyre. One by one, she piled her clothes onto the nearest bush; outside clothes on the bottom and inside on the top. She would be glad of the order later.
Quickly she crossed her legs and sat on the ground. Mary cupped her hands and scooped up some butterfat from a battered margarine container. Then she held the oily mass over the hot embers. In the firelight her naked shoulders looked like high-gloss butterscotch; deftly she applied the warm liquid to Diana’s thirsty skin. With no clothes to block the fire’s heat, the warmth spread right through her.
“Feels good,” she told Mary. She knew she didn’t understand English, but she wanted to hear her own voice.
Mary smiled and began to apply the body paint to her face. Diana dared not close her eyes for fear she might completely disappear.
Then, the nimble fingers painted her breasts and arms; every slash, every dash, every dot—a tattoo of the Dreamtime. Minutes later, she was done! The red wool tied around her forehead said so.
What now? Her eyes searched Mary’s, but she was already fingering the edges of the margarine container, preparing for her next canvas.
“Thank you,” Diana whispered as she rose to her feet and stepped aside.
She looked down at her painted breasts and lifted her left arm to admire the stripes around the muscle.
“Ready?” Lesley was suddenly standing beside her, passing her a couple of long, bushy branches—one for each hand.
Diana took hold of them and followed Lesley to the edge of the brush curtain, where other painted women waited in the wings, crouching, laughing, joking. Lesley squatted beside them, joining in. But Diana’s face tightened at the thought of what was round the corner.
As Lesley moved closer to her, she could feel the warmth from her body. When she stood up, Diana followed. The next minute, she was being shoved out into the front line. She looked behind her. Several lines were forming. Why couldn’t she be in one of them?
And where was Sylvia?
Up ahead was the audience. Blurred by smoke and bright lights, it was hard to make it out. She was thankful for that. Once again, she looked down at her naked breasts. They were almost invisible in the darkness apart from the white stripes. She stood up straight, the way a proud woman might on her way to the gallows. Then she inhaled deeply. There was something quite liberating about baring one’s breasts.
I probably would not have accepted the invitation to participate in an Aboriginal inma*, on a remote, desert community, had I known it would involve dancing almost naked in temperatures below zero. But by the time the moment came, I had been well prepared by a group of remarkable women, who had welcomed me into their world of ancient women’s business. I had sat with them beside sacred water holes, had my breasts painted in extraordinary caves and received dance lessons in riverbeds as old as time itself, all the while absorbing the subliminal messages of what it means to be a woman in a land without media or mirrors.
What I gleaned from that experience compelled me to write my novel, Finding Artemisia, so that other women could get a taste of what it’s like to be in an image-free zone, where women are valued for who they are and not for what they look like. Where dance is a communion with others and not a performance, and where baring one’s beautifully decorated breasts is a statement of who women are, always were and always will be.
*inma: a celebration of Aboriginal “mob” culture, where people come from all over to paint up, dance, sing, play music and be together, usually for several days.
Denise Greenaway lives in Ocean Shores, Australia, where she is a consulting food psychologist and therapist, educator and lecturer. Greenaway has travelled all over the world to schools, summer camps, corporations, prisons and reservations, lecturing about women’s issues and healthy body image. She has written two other books, Mirror Mirror, a body image fairytale workbook for girls aged eight to twelve, and Rainbow Food, a healthy eating workbook for schools and families.
More information can be found at www.denisegreenaway.com.
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