GODS AND MOTHERS
Gods and Mothers
In the centre of the studio floor stands June, a young Black person of about twenty. They are poised, frozen at the beginning of a routine. Face forward, body straight and steady. Their shoulders are pointed towards the ceiling, their spine is arched, curved to give them an air of grace. Their right arm, its hand empty, is arched over their head. The left rests on their hip. They drive their nervous breath steady; in through the nose, out through the mouth. They are almost a sculpture, but this breath, as it pulses through their chest and across their balanced limbs, gives them away.
They wear a satin burgundy dress that spills loosely to their ankles and reflects the light. They wear a headwrap, heavy dark make-up, black painted lips. They are stationed so perfectly between feminine and masculine that it is almost godly.
June waits for the music to start. It does. They should move but they don’t.
They drop their arms.
Stop. Sorry. Stop. Please.
Shake their head.
Remove their headwrap.
I’m really sorry.
They look at the empty right hand that is now no longer arched above their head.
I need it. I need it, and I couldn’t find it. I looked everywhere for it, in my mum’s stuff, in the box she left. Sorry. I can’t do it without it. I didn’t mean to disappoint everyone. It’s part of the routine. Nothing’s right. Nothing’s right without it. It’s this thing. This … it’s called a fly-whisk. It’s this thing that’s like … it sounds stupid … but it looks like a … it’s like a pony tail … with a handle. It’s supposed to symbolise me … her … not me … the goddess … Oya … it’s supposed to symbolise her controlling wind and change. She’s supposed to dance with it, swing it around like she’s conjuring a tornado and I’m supposed to be representing her, aren’t I? It’s supposed to be a whole thing because that’s the legend. It was either that in my hand or me dancing around with a machete and, trust, you don’t want to see me attempting to hold a machete. Health and safety. Mum says I can barely hold a butter knife properly. Said. Mum said I could barely hold a butter knife properly.
At least she doesn’t have to watch me be a failure. Don’t know why I thought I could even pull this off. Anyone would look at me and think this is ridiculous. What’s he doing dressed like a woman … a bloody goddess even … who does he think he is? Better to give the thing up before you fail … before you get a big fat fail and can’t graduate … better to drop out.
That thing … the horsetail thing … it’s not just a thing … I don’t know why I keep calling it just a thing. The fly-whisk. It’s my mum’s. Was. It was my mum’s and I couldn’t find it and I looked everywhere. It’s probably a sign that I’m not that good anyway. That this whole idea in my head about how this was supposed to be was crap. Is. Is crap.
They look down at their costume.
Dunno who I thought I was by doing this, some wannabe. Mum was the only one who thought it was a good idea.
I’m supposed to be wearing this belt as well. A belt with nine coloured strips of cloth to represent the spirits of the nine children that the great angry goddess Oya protects: that’s the legend. Couldn’t find that either. Flop. The dance doesn’t work without it. It’s incomplete. Practically blasphemy.
You know when you’re little … when you’re little, your parents, if they’re not shit ones, they tell you that you can do anything. Be anything, anyone. Tell you that you can fly if you want to even. Tell you that you’re special. Even if you’re not special to anyone else, you’re the best thing in the world to them. Even if you’re ugly, you’re beautiful. Even if you’re short, you’re tall. Even if you can’t sing or dance to save your life, you’re Beyoncé. Even if you’re not what everyone thinks you’re supposed to be, screw everyone else, because to your mum you’re exactly that, who you’re supposed to be. What happens when she goes? When she fucks off to the other side. *Sorry mum. Passes away, gracefully, in her sleep, in her hospital bed. * Then there’s no one left to tell you you’re good when you’re shit. No more rose-tint, suddenly, if you’re ugly, you’re ugly, you’ve always been. No more seeing her lips mouthing ‘you can do it’ from the audience when you’re up here and you feel like you might die of not being good enough. No more protection.
No more protection.
June wipes off their lipstick.
She passed away last week. Stage 4 breast cancer. A week before my final performance exam. I was gonna apply for extenuating circumstances but what’s the point? It was coming for ages, let me down slowly. She told me not to miss her, can you imagine? The funeral was this weekend. In the box of stuff that she left for me, even though I searched the whole of it, I couldn’t find the fly-whisk or the belt with the nine coloured strips of cloth. Not anywhere.
So, I can’t do it. There’s no point. I’m sorry. It was shit anyway and I give up. I do. I give up.
They throw their headwrap to the floor. They wipe off the rest of their make-up with the back of their hand and the bottom of the dress. The colour doesn’t come completely off, it leaves a dark shadow around their eyes, mouth and around the hem of the burgundy dress.
June bends their arms behind them, trying to unzip the dress from the back of their neck, down. They struggle. They stop.
She did this. She sewed the zip onto the inside of the dress because she thought one inch of visible zip would make the costume look tacky. Wonder who I got my standards from. Only makes it a twelve thousand times harder to take the thing off. Can’t believe she’s found a way to suffocate me from beyond the grave. Bet she planned this.
The dress unzips. June folds themselves out of the torso of the dress. They notice a label sewn on the inside of its neckline. They raise this label on the neckline up to their eyes and looks closely at it for a while. Something about the change in their face says that they have seen ghost or felt it.
They try to turn the label around to show it.
You probably can’t see it from there, but it says Junior. My name. She must’ve sewn it on. I dunno when she would’ve done it since she was too weak in the hospital bed to do anything. She must’ve done it somehow.
I hated it when she used to do it. When I started first year of uni, she sewed my name into all my dance clothes like I was a baby or something and I was gonna disappear if she forgot to write Junior onto even just one pair of socks. It was like she wanted me to get bullied. I swear, if I was getting bullied, I mean really bullied, like I was in secondary school, it would’ve given her a greater sense of purpose. Something more to protect me from.
I hated her doing it, but when she said, June do you want me to stop? I’ll stop if you want me to stop. I told her no. Don’t stop. Because I knew it was her way of telling me that I was supposed to be here no matter how many people told me I wasn’t.
Sometimes, in very brief moments, I forget what my real name is, the one I got when she gave birth to me. It easy to forget it because I never say it out loud. No one’s called me it since I was like six. It only really exists on my birth certificate, wherever that is. Every so often, briefly, I remember that Junior’s just a nickname and I think, who am I even the Junior of? Oh yeah, some dude. Some dude I’m half made of. Some dude that would probably kick off if he saw me dancing about in a dress.
The last time I remember hearing my real name out loud was from the mouth of my year two school teacher. Everyone called me Junior except her. She used to go on about young men being proper and everything. Sometimes when Miss would call my real name I wouldn’t answer because I’d forgotten that it was me. It was like the name was floating around in an invisible body that wasn’t mine. Miss would be shouting that name and I would just sit there thinking, who’s he, he’s not even in our class. When I was naughty, which was a lot, this Miss used to put a ‘Mister’ in front of the name as well. Mister ________ stop eating those crayons. Mister __________ did you put your pencil sharpenings in Alice’s hair? MISTER __________ THAT BEHAVIOUR IS UNACCEPTABLE.
But Miss … Miss I did it because Alice called me a bad name, a really bad one, and my mum said I should stand up to people who call me bad names so, Miss, that’s why I put my pencil sharpenings in Alice’s hair.
When Mum found out that Miss wouldn’t stop calling me that name, even though my name was Junior, she marched into school like an angry goddess and practically scared the hairs off the teacher’s head. My child had told you repeatedly what his preferred name is, so your actions are a disrespect to him, to me, and to the Gods that put us here. Find some respect. From the look on her eyes that day, Miss must’ve thought Mum was putting some ethnic voodoo curse on her. Well, she never called me that name again so maybe there was a curse.
Turns out all that drama was for nothing because when I was fifteen I told Mum I didn’t really feel like a Junior actually. A name that denotes a son as distinct from his father. It sounded too much like something I didn’t think I was ever gonna be, not really. She said, well what do you want me to call you then? I said, maybe June. She said, that’s fine. June. June is very fine. She liked June. Her birthday is in June. Was. Her birthday was in June. When I was sixteen I told Mum who I thought I was, who I am. That’s fine. She said it like she knew from the minute she popped me out. That’s fine. When I was seventeen I told Mum I wanted to be a dancer, to go to school for it. That’s fine. She sat with me, and we filled out the application, and where it said ‘name’ she wrote June, not Junior, and not that other name. That’s fine, that’s always fine.
Two years ago, I tried to find out who my dad was. Who I was supposed to be the ‘junior’ of. She got really upset, but she got over it and found me his number … and his email … and his address. I got too scared though. I dialled the eleven digits into my phone, but I couldn’t do it. What if he doesn’t like how I am, mum? What if I’m not anything like him and he hates it? So, what? So what, June? What if you’re not like him? What if you’re not supposed to be like him? Maybe you’re not his Junior, maybe you’re mine.
They look at the label sewn onto the inside of the dress’s neckline.
She was the only one I still let call me Junior.
They resume pulling the dress off.
But she’s not here is she? I was doing it for her you know. This whole thing. Because everyone else thinks it’s a load of rubbish. I’m not even trying to exaggerate or self-deprecate or nothing, it’s true. I missed so many classes to be with her, you know? I got so behind that almost every tutor in this place thinks I’m not gonna make it. When I did my preview, they didn’t look up from their notebooks once, so I know they thought it was shit. They didn’t say it to my face obviously, but I could see it. What does it mean? They kept asking me June, what does it mean? What are you trying to say? Well I don’t fucking know, my mum’s in hospital. Well June, you need to know because it’s not enough. You won’t pass, June. I didn’t say what I thought it meant because I thought it would sound stupid.
They look down at the half of the dress that still covers them.
Before she got sick I told her I didn’t know what to do for my final performance and she showed me this.
She used to dance in this exact dress, you know? When she was a little bit older than me. She used to tell me stories about it. She was born and raised in Nigeria to this aristocratic Catholic family who believed in one God and had enough money to send her to study abroad. She had an aunt in Jamaica, so she went there and started university. She said that when she was there, in the Caribbean, it felt like breathing the air made her remember something she didn’t know she had forgotten. It was like something she believed was dead woke up. She said it was the spirits of the ancestors and the Gods they worshipped. Sounds proper hippie for a Nigerian lady. She quit university, ran away from her aunt and went to Cuba. She went searching for the old Gods, the ones that the missionaries and colonisers tried to stamp out of memory, the ones everyone said were extinct. Her parents freaked out, just like she would be freaking out now if she could see the state of me. She said she found the Gods alive in Havana where people still paid respect. She watched in awe at ceremonies where people would dress up like deities and dance. She couldn’t tell whether they were being brought back to life or whether they had never died in the first place. People that had been trafficked across the Atlantic Ocean kept the spirits of their Gods alive by dancing their stories into the feet of their children and their children’s children, that’s the legend. My mum spent two years in the country learning how to do it. In this exact dress she learned to tell the story of Oya, the angry Goddess, the mother and fierce protector.
It was a whole other part of her that she never really talked about until then. Explains why she didn’t freak out about me wanting to dance. She didn’t have any pictures to show me, only this. When she showed me she said, if I went back to that island right now and I wore this dress, people would recognise me, you know. I said, yeah right, as if they’d recognise you with no hair. And she laughed with her whole chest until she was crying. It was the last time she had enough strength to laugh like that.
I wanted to put this exact dress on and do this … for her … to make her … I dunno. I promised her I would do it, finish what I started, try to graduate. But she’s not here no more, is she? And I couldn’t get the movements even half right, and my feet are too big, and my limbs are too long, and the choreography looks like shit. I couldn’t even find the fly-whisk or the belt with the nine strips of coloured cloth. If I drop out I’ve got a part-time job. Sainsburys. I can go full-time. It’s not the same as being a dancer but no one will be able to say there’s June, so sad that his mum died AND he’s a shit dancer AND he failed school.
They pull the rest of the dress off and throw it onto the floor.
I just want her to come back. Come back. That’s what I kept saying at the hospital when they told me to say goodbye to her body. Come back. Like she couldn’t have been dead even though I knew she was gonna die because she’d been dying for months. Come back mum. I need you. Come back.
No more protection.
Don’t cry June. Don’t. Don’t you cry in front of these people.
She used to tell me that. Don’t you cry. June, do you ever see me cry? No. So wipe your eyes. It made me angry because sometimes I wanted to cry. I wanted to, and she wouldn’t let me. It was her kind of protection, I guess. Whenever someone would say something about me, a family friend from back home, under their breath, about the way I walked, or talked, or danced, it was like she could feel the lump climbing up my throat and the water and heat building up behind my eyeballs. She would say, don’t you dare. Don’t you dare cry in front of these people. You stand up to them. You let them know who you are. Stand. No one can ever uproot a mountain.
But at her funeral the other day, an old family friend came up to me and said, now that your mother is gone, you need to grow up and be a man. No more of this nonsense. And she wasn’t there to stop the lump climbing up my throat or the water and heat building up behind my eyes by saying don’t you dare cry, you let him know who you are, with your head up. It all just came out. As soon as she left I let her down.
Can’t find the other half of the costume either.
They look at the dress on the floor.
That was the last thing she said to me, promise me you’ll do it, I’ll watch it from wherever I am. That’s not true, is it? Dead people can’t watch things. They can’t watch over things.
June picks the headwrap up from the floor and begins to fold it.
The thing about this dance is that it’s not just a dance. It started as a sort of ritual. A history that you could write from inside your body. Mum said that’s the safest place for history, you don’t have to write it down or remember it because it’s always there, never dead, alive as long as you are, as long as you keep dancing it. She said that when she learned it in Cuba, they would invite the Gods to take over their bodies, let their limbs be borrowed by spirits so that they were never just dancing. I didn’t believe any of that airy-fairy bedtime story stuff.
How do you know it was the spirits taking over you and not just you imagining it in your head?
They make you know.
I don’t believe you.
Promise me you’ll do it, I’ll watch you from wherever I am.
They put the folded headwrap down, pick the dress up from the floor and begin to fold it.
I’m really sorry to disappoint everyone. Maybe it’s good that dead people can’t watch things.
As they fold, they feel something inside the pocket of the dress that catches them unready. They unfold the dress and reach into its pocket. It is a folded photograph. They let the dress fall to the floor so that they can give both hands completely to unfolding the photograph.
It is a picture of their mum in Cuba, 1989. She is wearing the burgundy dress. She is captured poised at the beginning of a routine. Face forward, body straight and steady. Her shoulders are pointed towards the sky, her spine is arched, curved to give her an air of grace. Her right arm, its hand empty, is arched over her head. The left rests on her hip. She has neither the belt with the nine strips of coloured cloth nor the whisk. She looked then, body, face and all, exactly like June did at the beginning.
I used to ask her all the time to see pictures of her dancing, she said she couldn’t find any. You shouldn’t have to see anything to believe it, she said. You can’t see the wind, can you? But it’s there, never dead, alive as long as you feel it.
Even when she’s buried, she’s still right. There are things you can’t see that make you know that they are there. Maybe because you’re there, that’s enough proof that they are too. Watching, wind carrying you in the right direction.
June looks at the photograph, the dress, and then up towards the sky. With the photograph still in their hand, they drape the dress back over themselves and let their head and arms fall through it. They zip it up and re-take their position, poised. Face forward, body straight and steady, shoulders pointed towards the ceiling, spine arched, right arm arched over the head, now with the photograph in their hand. June is like a sculpture.
She said that this dance was how her people, after everything, made sure they would never die, no matter who said they were already buried. We are never dead, we are written inside your body, alive as long as you are.
I can hear her say it now. I can hear her tell me, Stand. No one can ever uproot a mountain.
The music starts. June begins to dance.
Afro-Cuban Orisha dance is a dance tradition that connects the individual to an ancestral community. During the dance, deities known as Orisha, were said to manifest themselves through the dancers who would enact and embody these deities. It arose from the Yoruba diasporic population who suffered centuries of slavery in the Americas and Caribbean. Through this dance, memories, stories and histories of the Yoruba people were preserved and shared.
Oya is a feminine Orisha, the hot-tempered warrior Goddess of wind, tornados and torrential rain. She is recognised for her strong will and fearlessness. She is traditionally presented wearing a red or burgundy dress with a belt of nine colours, and carries a whisk made from a black horsetail.
Commissioned by Yorkshire Dance as a response to the Encounters Festival, celebrating women in dance, Leeds, March 2019