We turn and lower our swords. In the mirror the gleaming blade divides my face, the saber extended and upright, aligned above my bent knee. Head slides right, left-right. Sharp, staccato. Our faces are tight-lipped, our gazes fierce. Approach if you dare, we seem to say. Then the music changes: a quick, upbeat melody. Swords held like half-moons above our heads, we shift to the more festive, folkloric saidi and ghawzee movements.
For the past four weeks I’ve been taking a sword workshop on Tuesday nights, learning a routine for the Orlando Bellydance Summer Gala in August. This is only my second sword choreography, but from the first time I slid the weapon from its velvety sheath and held it, I liked its weight and heft. But more than that, I liked the way incorporating the prop into the dance made me feel—the strong movements, the suspense of balancing the blade (dull, of course—although it is a real sword) on knee, stomach, crown of the head. The feeling that arises within as I move with the blade, the daring mysteriousness and sometimes playful haughtiness.
You might say I’m a little in love with the sword.
To dancers this is not surprising. Every bellydancer falls in love with some props over others. Many adore veils, others zills. But it’s not the prop one falls in love with, really. It is the persona the prop unearths, the previously unknown side of oneself which at first peeks out, then emerges more and more fully. Of the various props used in Middle Eastern dance, the sword is the one that makes me think the most about character and persona, how we tap into those elements as writers, and what we can borrow from other art forms to delve more deeply into character when writing.
How we can create character and persona is something I think we often tend to neglect as writers. I once had a writing instructor suggest to the students that we each take an acting course. I took his advice, but not until years later. I regretted not doing it sooner. In “Writing Down the Bones,” a terrific book by Natalie Goldberg in which she discusses writing alongside the insights of Zen meditation, there is a short passage entitled, “Blue Lipstick and a Cigarette Hanging Out of Your Mouth.” I was assigned the book for an undergraduate writing class years ago, and at the time I scoffed at her advice in that section:
“Borrow your friend’s black leather motorcycle jacket, walk across the coffee shop like a Hell’s Angel, and sit down and write. Put on a beret or house shoes and a nightgown, wear work boots, farmer’s overalls, a three-piece suit, wrap yourself in an American flag or wear curlers in your hair. Just sit down to write in a state you don’t ordinarily sit down to write in” (142).
How silly, I thought at the time. I’m not going to dress up in a stupid costume to write.
But writing is drama, and fiction is based on character. Even poets wear a “mask” between themselves and the audience—the “persona” which represents a speaker in a literary work who is not necessarily the author, but “a personality, as distinguished from the inner self” according to the Greek definition. So why don’t we approach our writing more as a stage-exercise? Sometimes I think it’s because we become so glued to our chairs and computers, so caught up in the mind, that we forget to get up, take a walk, try something new.
Remind ourselves that costumes aren’t just for Halloween.
I don’t remember consciously altering my writing process, to take seriously the possibilities of tapping into character more physically as I worked on my novel over the past two years. Nor can I pinpoint the influence of learning to bellydance with props and perform in full costume and make-up on my fiction writing. But at one point in drafting the novel, which is set in South America, I dug out my Peruvian shawl and wrapped myself in it as I typed on the couch. A few days later, I was in the shawl and remembered the cowboy hat I had bought in Costa Rica, the kind popular with farmers in Latin America. I stocked my fridge with arepas from the grocery store, drank coffee, and donned the shawl and sombrero off and on for the duration of the project, blasting the Gipsy Kings as I wrote.
You know what? The Peruvian shawl, the arepas and the Spanish guitar music all ended up in my novel. I’m not sure they would have if I hadn’t reached into my costume closet for an impromptu getup. And if my experience with dance props and performance hadn’t given me the courage to tap into character a different way, through the physical, and the attitude of “serious play” artists often speak about. The novel, I believe, is richer for it.
I like to think of the sword as the fiction writer’s prop, as the sword dance is itself a fiction. There is a widespread belief that bellydancing with a sword derived from women who accompanied men to war and danced for them at night. In reality, modern-day bellydancers embrace the sword as a folkloric prop based on Orientalist photographers and painters of the 19th century like Jean-Léon Gérôme, who traveled throughout the Middle East and depicted women and dancers with swords. Researchers have uncovered no evidence to date that dancing with swords was ever a common practice in the region.
But no matter. Art doesn’t have to be precise; in fact, the results are better when the path to the finished product is a little bit messy, unconventional, and surprising. Story and drama arise from various modes of “tapping in.” When I donned the shawl and rancher’s hat while writing my novel, I didn’t have a specific character in mind—I was capturing the spirit of the narrative spectrum. As I lunge and extend my sword, chin lifted, a new persona emerges: the self-who-is-not-myself. The warrior-goddess.