BY MAURA THE DANCER
I’m on a journey of liberation and decolonization. I hope as many of us as possible can make this journey and I will help in whatever way my gifts allow. I am reclaiming my body and spirit in all wholeness from patriarchal, colonial-style, false humility, from the repressed puritan rhetoric which is actually shame. Shame of dance, free movement, sex, relaxation, nakedness, masturbation, touching, and flesh—All things that are free, accessible and built into our bodies as gifts from Spirit. Along with our lives, nations, languages, life-ways and identities, the system has also attempted to annihilate our pleasure and the freedom of our bodies. As an Indigenous woman and as a professional dancer, I am reclaiming my sexual power and my sensual body. I am reclaiming the expression of what was always ours.
One of my Mattamuskeet elder cousins sometimes says “When the Europeans came we were topless. We just wore a little skirt and had our breasts out in the open air, just like the men. We didn’t see any shame in it, and we also had to nurse babies. Well, when they got here and those men saw us...they must have been driven out of their mind!” Her eyes twinkle and she laughs. Though she practices some traditional ways, she is a “good Christian”. But luckily no amount of Jesus was able to take away her appreciation of the bodily freedom we once had on this land.
I sometimes say the brainwashing and oppression began in our tribes when women’s breasts were required to be covered. During the wintertime everyone has everything covered. But why do women’s chests need to be covered when it’s hot? Why is not having a shirt on a problem? Why are women’s breasts so dangerous that revealing them is a crime?
In North America we have been being trained for the past 450 years or so to accept the inherent indecency of our naked bodies, that sex is generally sinful and that natural body functions are dirty. That is conditioning. A baby is born and loves her body. She loves every inch of her skin and is not concerned about clothing unless she is cold. She is born free. How does she become ashamed of her body? Conditioning.
When I was growing up, my grandma liked us to wear skirts or dresses to mass. They couldn’t be tight or short or show too much skin. Revealing clothes were for “fast” girls - not “nice” girls. Sit down, shut up, shut your legs, look pretty (but not too pretty, which will make you guilty for receiving whatever negative attention you get from being too pretty), be smartish - but in a non-threatening way that doesn’t upset people, don’t be too loud, don’t be too big, don’t be too sexy, don’t be too ugly, don’t be “too” anything. Make yourself smaller in order to be more respectable and acceptable. Conditioning.
In my family and communities, I saw that we were perpetuating oppressive settler colonial violence. This is the result of surviving centuries of subjugation and genocidal policies designed to destroy Indigenous people. But I began to realize that we were also acting out of a deep-seated fear.
I am the descendant of Keziah Mackey, a Mattamuskeet woman who was deemed as “unfit” by the county court. As a result, her children were taken out of the home and placed into indentured servitude until the age of 21. Keziah was punished for living communally, for occupying her traditional territory, for being the head of her household (in accordance with our traditions), for living “like an Indian” on her own homelands. We never forgot that message. We never forgot the punishments that were given for attempting to live freely. If you are too Indigenous you will be punished and beaten and raped and imprisoned. If you begin to embody the free ways of the ancient ancestors it will bring down the wrath of the empire. The cavalry will burn our towns. The government will take our children. So be safe, be quiet, be small and stay alive. Conditioning. Born of an attempt to protect, shelter, preserve and care for what we had.
One of our teachings is that every being has great importance and a special talent to share with the world. We are to use our shining brilliant uniqueness to the benefit of all. From shame and fear conditioning I had learned to be small, to be like everyone else and to stay “in line”. Part of freeing my body had to do with giving myself permission to take up space, to dance “wrong”, to let out my natural energy and to even be topless like my long ago grandmothers.
My people have always danced - for ceremony, for fun and to unite our communities. I am fortunate enough to dance at ceremony, like my long ago ancestors, and to dance in new ways, creating movement in response to the world around me. When I was about 3 or 4 years old my parents decided to enroll me in a children’s creative movement class. After my first class my father asked if I wanted to stay. I said yes and kept on dancing. I’ve been dancing ever since.
I grew up surrounded by dance: dance in my grandma’s kitchen, dance on stage at the American Dance Festival, dance in class, dance at powwows, dance at home for no particular reason at all. I have always been a student of movement. As a child I was fortunate enough to study ballet, Mandinka dances, various forms of modern dance and Tae Kwon Do. As an adult I have taken contemporary Indigenous dance intensives with Raven Spirit Dance (Canada) and Charles Koroneho (Aotearoa) and modern dance intensives with STREB (NYC) and Dance Exchange (MD). I’ve performed with modern dance companies, in Cuban baile folklorico companies and alongside musicians as a backup dancer. Beginning to create my own work and eventually becoming a self-employed, independent professional dancer and choreographer, was a process. It began when I realized that I was the example I was waiting for. I discovered I needed to create my own opportunities and that I did not need to ask for permission from anyone to do so. I realized that sustainability was possible as long as I was willing to be a relentless and creative entrepreneur.
To dance as recreation is not the same as being a professional performing artist. As performers we are called upon to do the impossible: to recreate the exact same dance over and over even though the world changes drastically every moment and human bodies are in a state of flux. To make the impossible happen (or at least make it appear that way) requires conditioning, training and rehearsal. I, like many self- employed people, spend half of my days doing the “thing” and half doing the administrative work that makes more opportunities to do the “thing” possible. The illusion of freedom that people associate with being a self-employed artist is only possible with the reality of self-discipline and diligence. With dance, that self-mastery affects everything from diet, to sleep to how you sit. Unfortunately the need for regulation and control sometimes creates a smoke screen effect behind which conditioning and fears thrive.
As early as the 9th grade I had begun to unravel US settler colonial propaganda as it related to history and land. But, I did not even begin to explore how it related to the body until 2020. It was a combination of COVID-19 lockdowns and more time on social media that led me to question why my costumes covered so much skin, why I avoided anything sensual in my work and why I was terrified of being too publically sexy. The only answers I had for my questions were the ones forced upon our societies by missionaries and colonizers. Even while dancing I had been terrified of letting go too much lest I unleash raw sexuality. I recognized that though I was a professional dancer choreographer, my work was still regulated by my own inner police. I was not in alignment with my own spirit and my own desires. It’s not really possible to produce free and open movement from a bound mind. I have a life mission to bring pleasure and happiness to people. I realized that by keeping my own sensuality and overtly sexual movement bound, I was also limiting my ability to share pleasure and joy with others. It’s all connected.
It became apparent that the sensuality, sexiness and flesh that I had been trying to suppress was actually my natural state. Once I realized this, I started talking with friends and colleagues who were publicly doing the exact opposite of what I had been trying to hide: strippers, professional full-service sex workers, cam-girls and erotic authors. I knew I wanted to expand what type of work I did in the world and started exploring online sex work, stripping, art porn, private cam sessions and gogo dancing. Two years later, I am still a professional dancer, I am still creating choreography. But I am also a stripper, a gogo dancer and a creator of beautifully made porn. I know that I have become a better performer because of stripping. I know that I am a better gogo dancer because of dancer training. I know that my ability to create more engaging porn is informed by choreography, performance and sex work. It’s all connected.
I am not done with this process of self-liberation because the conditioning is deep. I continue the work and know that actions will affect my descendants and my ancestors. Dancing like a “wild” and free woman will not bring the cavalry, but if it did I’m ready for them.
JEWELRY BY DANIKA LE'ROI WILLIAMS (COLVILLE CONFEDERATED TRIBES)
WORDS BY MAURA GARCÍA (NON-ENROLLED CHEROKEE AND MATTAMUSKEET)
DANCER, CHOREOGRAPHER & EROTIC ARTIST