Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Great Corn Dance at Kewa/Santo Domingo Pueblo

This is a truly, uniquely New Mexican expression of art and spirituality and because photos are forbidden, I will describe instead the day I spent witnessing this event. To "review" it would be profane, instead I would share my first time experiencing it, and encourage everyone to visit next year if you can.

The Great Corn Dance is performed annually by the people of the Santo Domingo Pueblo, once called Kewa, located about 40 miles north of Albuquerque. Regardless of the day of week, it occurs on August 4th each year, the Feast Day when the statue of St. Dominic is brought from the church to a place of honor in the pueblo's plaza to dance for, and this year our July rains made the morning drive lovely and surprisingly green. I was with a group of women who are attending the Wise Woman Retreat, a dance workshop hosted by Amaya, although I have only been around peripherally to offer henna art to the retreat ladies, and to accompany them to the Corn Dance. Amaya arranged for us to leave at 8 am, arriving early and getting us to the reservation in plenty of time to see the first of the dances.

What a culture clash the moment of arrival is... there are carnival rides, and state fair-esque booths & food vendors on one side, and the old pueblo church and open plaza on the other. It is a juxtaposition that only takes moments to reconcile. We made our way in to get a good seat (on the ground, or if no room, then standing) and the sun was already strong enough to coax trickles of sweat down my back. The dancers? They were amazing to watch. I expected to see 40-60. Instead there were hundreds, men and women from toddlers to elders, teenagers and parents.

What strikes you first is the sound, the drums and the chanting & singing of the men, almost entirely dressed in white and congregated in one area, far from the crowds and in the midst of the dancers. The bells of the male dancers chime in percussive unison as they move, waving pine tree boughs in each hand and dressed in ceremonial regalia. Men also carry gourd rattles that are used with the drums but only occasionally, and always with a swooping gesture as they rattle. I am told, by another wise woman, that to call their wear "costumes" is to insult. But the performer in me noticed how the men wore white loincloths, bare chested but painted in brown paints, and the women wore black dresses, with great deals of turquoise jewelry, their hair left down and flowing. Some danced barefoot and some wore moccasins. Some women also had wooden cutouts they wore on their heads, painted turquoise colored, and most of the men had feathers attached to their heads.

The male dancers wore leather armbands also painted turquoise, stuffed top and bottom with more pine boughs, and running this way and that, in and amongst the dancers were the "mud clowns" as Amaya told me they were called, also known as koshari, kureans, and koyemshi. Using clay, these men were painted white with black dots over their mostly naked bodies, and they are considered sacred figures who interact unlike any other in the ceremonial dances. They are sacred clowns, and carry a special authority. With a loincloth and corn husks gathered atop their heads, the mud clowns would assist the dancers as they moved. Because the dancers never stop, it is up to the mud clowns to adjust a belt that has come loose, or to retrieve anything that falls off the dancers as they move. They would often just lift the hair of the men and women, as if to adjust it for them more comfortably. Fascinating!

The choreographer in me noticed the patterns of the dance, a step-hop for the men and modified by most of the women into a daintier step-touch, in unison to the pounding drums. Arms alternated, waving the pine boughs they held, they often kept their focus down. The chains of bells around the men's shoulders and chests shook with every bounce, and never ever do the dancers make eye contact with the crowd. You don't smile at them (at least I tried not to) and you never applaud, nor speak encouragement after the dance is complete.

Feeling woozy from standing nearly 20+ minutes in the direct sun -- imagine how the dancers felt and it was hardly even 10 am -- I slipped away from the plaza at the first dance's completion to find a bite to eat at the vendors. This might as well be a food blog, because I ate roasted corn on the cob, found a pack of beef jerky sliced so thin it could melt on your tongue, and drank the biggest cup of horchata I could find. Amaya got the coconut flavored drink and said hers was divine. There were many jewelry booths, but I wasn't there for jewelry.

I returned to discover the next clan had come out and was already well into their opening dance, who knew? In fact, members of the squash and the turquoise clans alternate all day, taking breaks in between so each clan can rest. The hundreds of dancers I had just witnessed was only half the number of overall performers! The scale was so much bigger than I had expected. The heat was growing intense, with very little shade, and indeed the dancers were covered in rivulets of sweat already themselves. The stage manager in me worried about what would happen if someone (dancer or even tourist) fainted from heat exhaustion. Sure enough, there are multiple emergency heath units set up in the periphery of the event grounds all day. The sun was climbing high by this point, and we were only staying for half the day.

Walking around, I see one tourist lady tell another tourist lady who is talking on her cell phone, "You better put that away! They'll take it away from you!" It's true. This "no pictures, no videos, no cell phones, and no sketch books" rule is seriously in force. This is a religious performance, first and foremost, and I was discreet while taking notes all day, keeping my notebook and pen in my purse. Old Skewl Journalist.

Later we walked by the kiva, Amaya tells me it is a sacred space where only the boys and men are allowed. Men sit on top of it, around it, and give proprietary looks to all who pass by. I am so nervous to possibly offend, I skirt the thing entirely. She directs me to the plaza, where a shrine has been placed at one end, under which is presumably the statue of St. Dominic. Not only do I go nowhere even remotely near the shrine area, I am mortified I might be sitting in the wrong gutter for the upcoming dances, but Amaya assures me we're fine. She's been here more years than she can count she tells me. I'm thankful for my horchata, clutched in my hands, and the sliver of shade we squeeze into, while sitting on the dirt. I'm mortified all over again that maybe my shorts are too short? I'm told by another woman, "Your butt isn't showing or anything! You're fine!" I probably worry too much.

The next dance begins as the clan fills the plaza, and the squash clan has ever so slightly different regalia, but is for the most part similar to their turquoise counterparts, minus the arm bands and such. A corn banner is raised and paraded about in the dancers' midst all day, and as I sit on the ground, literally feet away from the dancers now, I can feel the drums and the pounding steps shake the earth. It makes me teary, and for a while I let myself be overwhelmed.

Before leaving, Amaya says we should visit the church, which I wholeheartedly agree to. Fascinating, having seen the lavish European churches, gilded and adorned with priceless artwork done by Renaissance masters... just sitting in the small adobe structure here gives me a sense of peace that the cathedrals of my past never provided. The stations of the cross are depicted in paintings hung around the chapel walls. There is an alter area that is roped off and we sit in the wooden pews to rest. The longer I sit, the more I see. Statutes of Mary, pictures of the Madonna and child, saints with their outstretched arms adorn the tops of the wooden altar. Painted on the wall there is a simple sun, moon and corn drawing. Like the carnival and corn dance, the pueblo and the priest find a way to coexist in this space, and give shape and meaning to what outsiders like me find contrary.

When we leave at noon, there is a 3 MILE line of cars waiting to get in. Although many dances will occur the rest of the day, our group had splintered off to find treasures from vendors, bites to eat, and memories to share once we had come together again.

To see the Great Corn Dance on the feast day of St. Dominic next August 4th, head north on I-25 to exit 259. Learn from Amaya and go early! You don't wanna sit in that traffic backup, it made the balloon fiesta traffic jams look like a typical day at the mall. Remember to leave your cell phone in your purse, and enjoy the day that is being shared for all to celebrate.

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