Dancing in the desert

I have never been what you would call a dancer. I didn't nail down that rubber-kneed dance called the ``mashed potato'' until three years after Dee Dee Sharp's record made it famous. By then it was neither ``the latest'' nor ``the greatest.'' To the tune of my older sister's guffaws, I spent hours mastering the Bristol stomp on the linoleum floor in the kitchen. I did it there often but never dared go public. At junior high school dances I spent a good deal of time in the bathroom. Most of the wallflowers camped out in that tiled room because they were afraid to suffer the humiliation of not being asked to dance; I, however, was there because I was panic-stricken that someone might ask me.

More recently, in a farming village in the northern Netherlands, I went to the 25th wedding anniversary celebration of one of the neighbors of my Dutch husband. Children, grandparents, people of all ages, were dancing to the merry tunes of violins and accordions.

A farmer named Klaas took my hand, hoisted me up onto the dance floor, and began (trying) to twirl me about. For such a big fellow, he was mighty light on his feet. Unfortunately, I had no idea what those feet were doing. Every time I moved one of my own feet, one of his was under it. By the time we finished, I knew he wished he'd left his dancing shoes home and donned the heavy wooden shoes he wears around his dairy farm.

All of this given, you can imagine that I wasn't into solo performance dancing either. So I wasn't prepared for what happened in the Sahara.

A photographer and I were in Mali, about 75 miles west of Timbuktu, researching an article about Saharan nomads who had survived a long drought. On our first night in a tiny village of semi-nomads, we sat on a mat with a small group around a large bowl of ground millet seasoned with okra and butter. Dipping our hands into this shared bowl, we ate beyond being full. A fire crackled warm beside us. After dinner our host, Oumarou, made and poured tea -- and then pulled out his well-worn cassette recorder. ``Now we will dance,'' he announced, flipping on a scratchy tape.

Then, without standing up, he began moving his hands as if reaching for and weaving strands of air. I watched, fascinated. After about 15 seconds, Oumarou did an elaborate somersault with his arms and pointed at the fellow sitting beside me. Immediately Oumarou's arms dropped to his side and my neighbor's rose like a maestro's. The movements of his long, slim fingers were like silk scarves blowing in the wind, and captured every ounce of my attention. Then, suddenly, he pointed at me. I had no choice but to take the cue.

So I danced with the upper half of my body, my crossed legs twitching, my toes tapping. ``Not bad,'' I thought, winding down my wild gesticulations and pointing to someone else. Clearly, as far as dancing was concerned, I had been born in the wrong corner of the world. I belonged in this place where people dance sitting down. My hands and arms were far more danceworthy than my feet and legs. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that these people also dance standing up.

In the middle of our after-dinner dancing, we heard the sound of drums, chanting, trilling tongues, clapping. The village women had gathered around our host's thatched home to welcome us. They formed a circle and invited us to be part of it. There, under a splash of stars that seemed spilled from a bottomless vat, one person after another danced -- on their feet -- in the circle's center. To my joy, my photographer friend, and not I, was asked to perform. I laughed raucously with the villagers as he stirred up the sand with a spirited rendition of the funky chicken. I went to bed happy -- and relieved.

But the following day, as I sat in my hut sketching a young Tuareg woman named Zeinabou, I suddenly heard the insistent slapping of a tamtam coupled with the sound of trilling tongues and clapping hands. ``That's unusual in the middle of the day,'' I thought. Then, two young girls burst into the hut, grabbed me by the hands, and said, ``Come. Come!'' Innocently, I came.

Stepping out into the brilliant desert sunlight, I found 20 women waiting to have me dance for them. They had spread out a mat like a stage and ushered me to its center. Then they closed in around that mat and increased the vigor of their drumming and clapping. What could I do? I danced.

As if he were a '60s disc jockey, my photographer friend stood on the sidelines shouting, ``Do the monkey! ... now the shingaling! ... and the jerk! ...'' I did what he said. After a while, I plopped down on the mat, weary. But after 30 seconds, the women clamored for more.

Then it dawned on me that they didn't care whether I was good or not; they were just plain eager to watch someone who looked and moved differently than they did. And yes, they wanted to laugh. So did I. So as the crowd grew, I got back up and my friend resumed his dance calls. ``The swim! ... the locomotion! ... the twist!''

``What about the mashed potato]'' I called. After all, I was prepared for that one. And so it was that by dancing in the desert, I found a measure of grace -- the grace of chuckling at myself.

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