Village People

A Day in the Life at the Pennsic War

"For Beginners"
(ZAGHAREET! (Nov/Dec 2005)
by Anthea Kawakib Poole
(Atesh of Orluk Oasis)

(The study of belly dance naturally leads to discovering it’s history and cultural origins, and sets us to wondering what it’s like to experience the dance, set like a jewel, amid village life. While most of us can’t run off and join the circus or live the “gypsy” life of traveling entertainers as Renaissance Fair folk do, historical re-enactments are the next best thing - they offer a perspective on the dance we can’t find in the classroom. This article presents a slice of life during an annual historical re-enactment called the Pennsic War*.)

I love watching people dance. At shows, parties, in restaurants, but especially at Pennsic. After sundown the lamps are lit, dinner is over and finery put on, the smell of smoke and perfume fills the air, and the road is busy with travelers walking to parties. I see them pass quietly alone, in pairs, or in loud laughing masses sometimes singing, ringing bells, chanting, a long line of revelers in no hurry at all to reach their destination.

The best Pennsic events have moonlight, like this one, where the moon is fuller each night. The evening air is warm, but still fresh, not heavy with soot like the colder Pennsic years, even though our campfire is burning (as many others are) to use the wood before we leave in a few days and the town fades like a dream upon waking.

Earlier in the day it was too hot to wear my usual garb, even the light cotton Persian “underwear” of long-sleeved chemise and pants. I can only survive this year’s terrible heat in a choli (of course I hadn’t brought any from home, so in desperation purchased one on site), in a chair facing into the breeze from the lake; too hot in the tent or under the awning for even a quiet pastime like sewing. I always bring sewing to Pennsic, at least a few handkerchiefs to hem. Somehow by next year they’ll be gone again, and I’ll sew more. Carrying one or two is almost a necessity, for sweat, tears, or simply a napkin when dining away from camp.

One of the most pleasant destinations this year is Your Inner Vagabond lounge, in their third year at War. Now bigger, situated at the top of a merchant row to catch the breeze coming in under the trees in the courtyard, there’s plenty of room to spread out and relax back on cushioned divans, eating sweetmeats and drinking iced spiced coffee or tea, watching a henna artist ply her trade, or perhaps a dancer. The proprietor welcomes entertainers, and some of our camp members perform several times during the course of the War. One afternoon we go to see Kaheena dancing, and another time Osman and Kazuki play music together.

The walk back to camp passes many merchant booths offering everything from trinkets to grand acquisitions, plenty to choose from when purchasing presents for those left back home in the mundane world. This year I decide to have my portrait done for my husband. I want to capture this experience, this time, this feeling, not just in a photograph (I didn’t even bring a camera), not in the quickness of a flash, where we freeze and falsely smile for a moment. So arrangements are made and I sit for the artist in the evening, just after sunset, when the day’s heat lessens enough for me to wear several layers of garb without sweat running down my face. I’d seen Martha Blair’s portraits for years, knew she could catch the look of a face, maybe even past the face into the heart. Over two hours I sit facing her, facing the road, watching the passersby–some now going to dinner at the end of the day, others preparing for Court in the Barn just across the way. First the heftiest trappings–thrones, benches, banners–go past us carried by men in European garb, then the multitudes gather, in their finest garb (for some may be called up in Court to receive an Award), murmuring, waiting, watching down the road till at last into view comes the King and Queen’s Procession. The Royal couple is surrounded by their retinue, a great dignified amoeba, smiling, swelling through the marketplace drawing bows from the common folk. I watch and remember the boredom of many long courts, longer than this portrait sitting, stifling hot, unable to hear most of the business being conducted. Finally having seen enough I swear off the pageant and happily lose track even of who currently sits on my Kingdom’s throne.

Now we sit, the artist and I, she busy with colors and shading, I almost in a trance from staring stillness, hearing the Court’s mumbled declarations punctuated with the crowd’s “Vivats!”. Over her shoulder I see Baron Durr, Orluk Oasis’ founder, stopping for an ice cream–and I realize the sitting is taking longer than I’d planned, and I may be missing S’more’s Night back at camp. Mistress Blair finishes the portrait (“It’s you!” one looker-on proclaims), we decide on mat and frame, and I take the finished, ready-to-hang portrait back to camp. Yes, there’s a plate on the table, someone has saved me a S’more! And now most of my camp mates are gone, perhaps to the hafla in our sister camp, Watan, up on Hill Road, or the Moose Lodge Hafla that’s way up past the Battlefield. I decide to stay home in camp and rest, as I’ve already been “up top” twice today, and besides I’d been to Watan’s spur-of-the-moment hafla the previous Saturday.   

I sit by the dying campfire and look out across the lovely moonlit lake, torches ringed around it here and there, lights moving along the lake path as people take the shortcut to the Swamp, where there’s a party almost every night. Our own camp’s famous hafla was two nights ago, starting inauspiciously as the previous night’s rainwater was tipped out from the top of the tent directly onto two of our musicians and their equipment, ending their night early. The musicians on the other side of the tent, having missed the downpour, carried on, more joining in as the night progressed, till the entire side facing the road was filled with musicians and drummers. Dancers from every corner of Pennsic came to enjoy themselves, familiar faces over the years, lifting our hearts, making us laugh, clap, dance with them. The hafla tent, like our camp itself, is small, the party a press of bodies, almost standing room only, blocking the road, spilling over into other camps, difficult to navigate through. It’s like a huge extended family having a family reunion in a too-small house. It’s my favorite night, playing hostess, making sure the shy ones come into the tent to dance, reminding others of the refreshments laid for them on the table, greeting friends I only see once a year. I love watching them all, seeing how each dancer is different, moods and feelings encompassed in movement, mostly women, but one or two men too, their arms, faces, reflecting their ways, open and bold, tilting up, laughing, looking around. Some private, eyes almost shut, tightly holding on to their little space on the rug or by the fire, others revolving around them. This isn’t a show, it’s not a competition, just an invitation to share the joy of dancing. Somehow it works, it’s authentic, a real village celebration.

acrylic portrait from Pennsic
Anthea Kawakib as Atesh, painted by
Martha Blair
*The Pennsic War, an historical re-enactment of the Middle Ages, is an annual two-week event held by the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA).

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