In my last post, I was in Salvador, Brazil, watching the entrancing spirit-possession ceremony called the candomblé. I continue watching.
A somewhat pasty-faced man dances in the circle closest to the centre. He is tall, wearing an off-white cotton top and pants. His curly grey hair could be a wig. He looks a little like a newly frocked monk, soft and pliant, or perhaps the clerk in a bank. Or, because of the wig, a grandmother. He’s singing the songs – each song is to a different god – and I watch his small mouth sound out the words.
Although he is by no means attractive, wherever I look, my eyes eventually come back to him. He is dutifully circling in the dance, self-contained, singing.
A dancer passes in front of me whom I believe is a woman, because her wrists and arms are tiny. I can’t see her face because she’s wearing the traditional candomblé costume with the straw headdress covering her eyes and obscuring her face.
There are older woman, in all-white long dresses, moving their arms out from their bodies and back. It’s almost a rowing action. They look old and vulnerable.
As the music changes tempo, everyone bows, touching the floor and then putting their hands to their faces, as though blessing themselves. Then they straighten and continue to circle in the dance.
A man passes by. He probably weighs 250 pounds. He is wearing a sleeveless top which reveals his broad shoulders and tight muscled arms. In one hand he holds a silver vanity mirror which he presses against his chest. Below his midriff are the voluminous skirts with acres of cloth all bloused out and uplifted by crinolines. His eyes look closed. As with the others, he has a kind of bracelet, thick, silver, which grips his forearms high up, near his shoulders.
His face is round, like a cherub’s; his cheeks puff out as if blowing on a cornet.
What a contrast to the anemic banker circling closer to the centre. The banker and the large-skirted man are like planets in vastly different orbits.
There are now about 150 people crammed into the room, all standing. Some of them are singing.
Another man goes by, dressed similarly to the large man, but instead of a mirror he holds a stylized red sabre which he directs to his heart.
Weaving between the circles is a middle-aged woman carrying a towel. She puts the towel on a dancer’s back, drying the sweat. She clears the face of another dancer. She lifts strands of the straw headdress, and helps the frail woman inside. Then she tosses the towel over her shoulder, the way you would if you had just patted down a horse.
And that’s the description given by Ruth Landes in 1939: that sometimes the god descends into the dancer’s head “and rides her” as if she is his horse. “Then through her body he talks and dances.”
It’s hot in the room. I can feel the sweat gathering on my forehead; it drips down my face. I don’t know why I don’t mind. Lisa asks me if I want to go outside – it’s a rougher conversation than that, because we don’t speak the same language, but I seem to understand her question. In any event, I say no.
Three little girls are in front of me, sitting on the bench behind which I am now standing. They aren’t watching the dancing, they are watching me. One of them, bright faced and eager, starts to talk to me. Lisa explains to her that I don’t understand Portuguese. At least I hear the word “Portuguese” and she shakes her head. The little girl seems to find this somewhat astonishing. She continues to chatter away to me. I look at her, listen, and shake my head just as Lisa did. Then Lisa says something like, “She wants you to talk to her in English.” So I say, “Hello,” and I put out my hand, “I am happy to meet you. My name is Leslie. What is your name?” Lisa gets enough of the sense of this to be able to translate. She is Sophie, and Sophie continues to talk to me in Portuguese. Lisa explains, “She wants you to say what it’s like to fly in a plane,” or something like that. I use my hand to imitate a plane, then sign out 24 with my fingers, trying to tell her how long it took me to get here from Canada. On we go in this way. But I want to watch the dancing. I leave her to Lisa. Yet it’s not easy to ignore a young, engaging child. She talks to me, then pulls on my sleeve. I lower my head. She whispers loudly in my ear something in Portuguese. She thinks my problem is with hearing, not with understanding. I try to share the real difficulty by whispering in her ear, “But you see, I don’t understand you. And it’s just like this. You don’t understand me.” The girl is delighted by my gibberish.
I look up again, watching the dancing, as Sophie watches me. Sophie says something to Lisa, who translates. “You are beautiful.”
Ah, linda, I say, and don’t get the pronunciation quite right. I point to her. Linda.
And I abandon her, once again, to Lisa.
There is hardly a break between songs, barely a seam of silence separating one from the next. Ruth Landes refers to a singer “pulling the songs for the drummers to take up.” Without the verb “pulled” I wouldn’t have understood as clearly as I do what I am experiencing. Amidst the dancers, I am able to pick out the voice of the singer who stands near the central edifice. He is the one who starts the songs, and stops them. He is the one who pulls the songs for the drummers.
I am drawn back to the anemic banker. He’s moved out of the inner most circle and is on the outside, close to me. Suddenly, his head goes back and his knees buckle, his body like a table collapsing. The woman with the towel is there to catch him and hold him up. She must have been watching out for him, she’s so close at hand. An older man is there, too. They don’t let the dancer go. He stands and starts to move again around the circle. They follow him; they watch him; they take care of him. I have a sense that they want him to be able to carry this god who has come into him, without crumbling from its force. And he does. As he dances again, in the outer circle now, he is changed. His face is chiseled, angular, hardened. He doesn’t mouth the words of the song. He is taken to an inner dance.
I yield to the temptation to close my eyes so that I can hear these rhythms without sight. My head becomes a drum, vibrating with this music. Around and around. I am emptied out, except for this. The pounding pulverizes my anxiety, my fears, my obsessions. It even vanishes my fatigue.
When I open my eyes again, the woman with the straw headdress is whirling in fast circles on the floor, and then strides forward — more like a speed-skater, than a horse — stops and turns again. It’s a ferocious, muscular movement which seems to press into her and spin her like a top. Suddenly, she is propelled through the curtained doorway and disappears. The two helpers follow her.
“Where has she gone?” I ask Lisa, but she frowns and shrugs.
Luke taps me on the shoulder and I jump, as though he’s touched me with an electric charge. “We have to go now,” he says.
“Lisa and I are going to a concert. You can come if you’d like.”
“Can I stay here?”
“No, not by yourself, and anyway, there’s no one to take you home.”