I was hurrying past the Victorian Arts Centre on my way home from yet another day of dancing, anatomy lessons and rehearsals, when an intriguing rhythm made me slow down. It was a mix between a six/eight and twelve/eight beat and it made me want to jump out of my ballet corseted skin, twirl and flay my arms around in sheer joy. But of course, I didn't. Two years of training in perfection, had made me self-conscious and lose any sense of physical abandonment. Even for pleasure. I had stopped dancing wildly at parties some time ago. Unwittingly, I had become both a ballet snob and a prisoner of the form.
However, the repressed, uninhibited dancer within compelled me to follow the drumming to the Recital Centre. There, a pale-skinned, red-haired busker sat on the concrete playing three drums, absorbed in his music. I was astonished that the throng of pedestrians passing by hadn't noticed this hypnotic magic.
When he finished the piece, I asked him what he was playing. "It's the Mukhar Samba – African," he said. "Africans believe music is about sharing and happiness." His name was Gordi and we hit it off straight away. We talked about the weather and music. Then he asked, "You like art?"
"Come past Friends of the Earth co-op with me. I’m heading that way now. There’s an Indigenous exhibition on in the arts space there."
"Indigenous? Well, I don’t know, I’ve gotta get home…" I thought about what I’d already done that day: 7am: wake up; 8am: stretching and strengthening in the pre-techniques class; 9am: dance history; 10:45am: dance classes; 2:30: choreography; 4:30 rehearsal. I worked four nights a week as a waitress to supplement the student government grant I received, and this was one of my nights off. I was tired and needed to get to bed early to do it all again tomorrow. Everything had a timeslot. Just as I wouldn’t veer from the assigned dance steps, my schedule offered little room for improvisation.
But attraction and curiosity got the better of me, and I went. Why not?
Entering that building was like entering a parallel universe. While I had been busy surrounded by leg warmers, body obsession, competition, privilege and beauty, the world seemed to be going down the gurgler. I learnt about uranium mining, nuclear testing in the Pacific, and secret government operations at Pine Gap. I learnt about the sinking of Greenpeace, the Mabo High Court case for indigenous native title, as well as the proceedings in the High Court to stop the damming of the Franklin River. And I was impressed by the influence this co-op had in the political reforms being won. I learnt about Gandhi’s Passive Resistance tactics that helped free his people. I learnt the lyrics to Midnight Oil songs. They were anthems for this new, ever-growing Environmental Movement.
I started hanging around the co-op with Gordi and others I had met, more than I could afford to. I began to miss classes and skipped shifts at work. As an excuse, I pitted one against the other, lying that I couldn’t come to classes because I had to work, and I couldn’t come to work because I had dance rehearsals. My teachers began to indicate their concern for my progress, and I felt ashamed of my deceit. None of that stopped me.
Quite a number of people associated with the co-op were so different to what I had become accustomed to, that they fascinated me. Time seemed to be luxuriously expansive for them. My quick, energetic movements seemed to jolt their relaxed, almost trance-like states, and I learnt to consciously slow down my movements and speech so as not to startle them. Many didn't seem to work, or if they did, their hours weren’t too demanding. Such social fringe-dwellers hung around here a lot. They came and went when they pleased, often picking up and traveling around the country to attend various rallies or festivals, representing a polar opposite to my all-encompassing and restricted existence. I would often wonder how they survived, what money they lived on.
Months passed and the inevitable day came where I would be expected to step up my budding commitment to this community. There was a meeting to discuss what was to be done about the freighter coming in to Australia carrying wood from virgin rainforests in Indonesia. I was asked to join the protest. I remember looking around and noticing a few posters decorating the white walls: "Land Rights Dance. Town Hall 8pm," another, "Uranium - Mutate now and avoid the rush." That one made me smile, but the one that stuck in my mind was: "The world is watching. Don’t give up." Indeed.
"Wow. OK, sure…"
"Good on you!" Sarah, a girl I had started spending time with at the co-op, cut in, slapping me on the thigh. Her hound-dog eyes brightened and seemed to almost match the green spiky Mohawk style her hair sported.
"Siiiick," Gordi sang shaking his head and embracing me warmly. Welcome to the family, I thought.
The day finally arrived. Gordi had agreed to come see my apartment for the first time, and then to go together to the protest rally. He was more than an hour late and seemed in no hurry to leave. Instead, he was enjoying himself on his self-guided tour of my apartment, with me trailing behind speechless. He walked in and out of bedroom wardrobes, lay face up to the ceiling in the hallway, and now was squatting on top of my fridge. His pale blue eyes gazed around the kitchen through strawberry dreadlocks that revealed a toothy grin. "Wow, what an awesome perspective! The best one so far! This is sooo cool!"
What was he doing? I wished he would just come down already, as we needed to get to the rally. And not only that, but Jesus Jones! This hefty, six-foot guy somehow managed to get up on my fridge and it just looked so wrong – so wrong! He continued to gawk and nod, "Awesoomme! How many people have actually looked at their rooms from a completely different angle? They should! Seeing a thing in a different light really expands you!"
Calm down, I thought, just calm down! This is not ballet, and you’re not the ballet teacher insisting on precision, discipline, perfection. He’s a free spirit, living in the moment.
"For sure..." I eventually replied, moving to the doorway in the hope he’d follow. "...Um, we really should go, we're already running late.” I hoped I didn't sound too uptight, but anxiety was tightening its grip.
"No worries!" he sang as he slid off the fridge and sauntered in the opposite direction toward the lounge room. "Love the place, Susie! And the sparse décor makes a real ethical statement for simple living."
"Yeah, it's called being a struggling dance student," I replied.
The day was cold with a biting southerly. Finally arriving, we greeted the others who stood along the concrete at the edge of the Yarra River, where the mouth of the Docklands opened up to Port Phillip Bay. It was one of Australia’s most important dockyards, and we were there to protest the arrival of an Indonesian freighter carrying the heart and lungs of a desecrated forest destined for paper mills.
The placards and banners with slogans plastered on them were here for protesters to hold up, but I had volunteered to paddle out on a surfboard and symbolically try and stop the huge Indonesian freighter carrying the wood chips from entering the Docklands. I had never been on a surfboard before and was hesitant, but at the meeting I was repeatedly reassured by Gordi and the others that it would be easy. I just had to sit on the surfboard and paddle out with my arms.
We immediately recognised Harry’s deep-timbred voice. He was the lynchpin around which the rest seemed to revolve. Harry was older than the others and got things organised, ran workshops and meetings, and basically looked after everyone. His messy hair, bushy beard and wide girth matched his big reputation – everyone knew Harry Bear. We spotted him in the middle of about ten huddled protesters, the hard cores, so we headed towards him. OMG! I’m freaking hard core! I felt the others along the dock staring at me.
“Remember," Harry was explaining, "head towards the middle of the river. Once you get there, stay there! Hold your ground! We want to make it clear this bloody freighter is not welcome on our shores! Hold your position and make as much noise as you can until the freighter’s about twenty metres away from you. Then paddle hard away from the freighter, because you want to be clear of the massive wake. If you get caught in the wake there may be a chance you might get sucked into the propeller."
Harry handed out the surfboards and wetsuits as needed. He looked up at us as we shuffled in. "You got wetsuits? he asked, "It's gonna be bloody cold in there."
Gordi had previously assured me he’d bring along wetsuits for the both of us, but he replied "Ah, no, I didn't get around to asking Kristian if we could borrow his." My anxiety raised another notch, but I just took a deep breath and bit my lip.
"No worries," Harry mumbled, getting two wetsuits out of a large sports bag on the ground beside him. He gave one to me, and I got a whiff of stale urine. "That should fit you."
I looked at him. "Sorry," he said knowingly, "It's better than nothing.” Then, as an afterthought, added, "You can dunk it in the Yarra a bit before you put it on, if you like.” We dunked our wetsuits into the brown murky water a few times, and then headed to the car to get into them. Gordi pointed out the drawstring you needed to hold on to, to pull the zipper up at the back.
I had never worn a wetsuit before and realised I’d have to take off my warm clothes to get into the stiff, cold and dank wetsuit. I kept my undies on for what I’d hoped was "protection" from god knows what! The suit was tight and uncomfortable, but I was resolved to see this through. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to show the hard cores or myself that I wasn’t just a fickle, self-absorbed dancer, but that I cared – I really cared!
The hard cores who were about to paddle out were crowded around Harry in their wetsuits, and the protesters who held placards were on the perimeter. "Avoid getting your head in the water. As you know, it's really bloody polluted and you don’t want to be swallowing that stuff," he warned.
A couple of protesters steadied each end of the surfboard as I clumsily knelt in the middle of the wobbling thing, and paddled out gingerly. I began to lag behind everyone else in the group, and so clenched my teeth, bent over my knees and plunged my arms into the Yarra trying to gain lost ground. With my head now just above the waterline, I could almost taste the delicate stench of faeces and refuse. Heavy droplets rained down on me from the spray I created by the frantic swing of my arms.
Panting, I reached the others. My eyes followed the direction they were staring and were confronted with the enormous freighter, not two hundred metres in front, heading our way. I could hear the shouting from the docks: “No logging rainforests! You’re not welcome here! Get out! No virgin rainforest for sawdust!"
No fear seemed to paralyse the small surfboard group around me. They held fists in the air as they angrily shouted along with the others, Gordi among them. Speechless, I turned back only to see the freighter’s bow now towering over me.
It all seemed to be happening too quickly. Was it time to move to the side yet? I glanced around again, and to my growing terror, saw everyone else now far away from the approaching mental monster. I desperately started paddling away from the freighter. I felt like I was paddling in glue, too petrified to turn around and see how close the ship was to me now.
A loud, ominous horn blew. I felt its reverberation in my chest as I rose up on the crest of a large wave that pushed me forward with such force, that I lost balance and plunged in. Losing my surfboard, I opened my eyes but couldn’t see anything in the agitated gloom. I thrashed blindly with only one thing on my mind, the propeller! I wanted to scream but swallowed water instead. It tasted gritty and rank, and I wrestled the frightening urge to retch. Pressure built up in my lungs and throat, but I fought the urge to inhale. Every time I reached what seemed like the surface, I was only slammed under again by the onslaught of yet another wave. My legs! No! Please NO! I stopped flailing my limbs, unsure whether this would be helpful or not. The wild water seemed to wrap suctioned tentacles around my torso, my legs, arms, now head, rolling me to and fro and making it impossible to determine the direction of the drag. The murky darkness closed in on me...
I then felt a sharp tug on my hair and knew in the next second I would be decapitated. Realising the inevitable, my body strangely relaxed and allowed the force that held my hair to carry me into the blades. Instead, it drove me up to a blinding light that flooded my stinging eyes. Instinct snapped my mouth wide open and I inhaled, not water, but air!
"Freaking hell, man, you’re so baaad!" sang a familiar voice. My eyes cleared and I saw Gordi leaning over me as he let go of my hair and heaved me up by the armpits beside him on the surfboard. He had a thick rope tied around his waist which was held by Harry and some protesters on the dock, who pulled us away from the passing freighter.
Heaving on the surfboard like some wretched whale, I looked up to see the receding tail of the massive, wood- laden ship. Leaning over its rails were hordes of slim, smiling Asian workers waving down at us. My surfboard was a bright toothpick bobbing in the distance. I vomited.
"Jesus, they think we're a bloody welcoming committee!" Gordi said through blue lips as he stared back at them, incredulous. The banners on the dock stopped pumping the air, and the speechless protesters just stood and watched the cheering Asians float away.
Still weak, I was lifted up onto the dock by Harry, Sarah and a few others, to applause and whistling. Harry boomed, "Great performance Susie! Too bad none of the reporters contacted showed up to capture it and televise it to the world."
"True, but the Asians bloody loved it! I think you got a standing ovation!" piped in Sarah, to more whooping laughter.
Even though the protest was a failure, I was amazed that the mood was buoyant. It seeped into me, and I felt happy too, allowing them to rib me, ruffle my hair, slap my back warmly. After all, I understood that all this teasing was the Australian equivalent to affection. And I was struck by what I saw on each and every face that surrounded me - stark, dogged conviction.
Leaving, I gave Harry a warm hug and whispered in his ear, "Thank you, Bear."
"You’re welcome, Tiny Dancer," he replied, winking down at me.
Heading back to my apartment, Gordi and I sat in silence.
After we took turns showering, Gordi shivered even though he was wrapped in a blanket and wearing my pink flannels. We were both huddled in front of my small bar heater in the kitchen. I kept staring at Gordi with fierce, poignant love.
"Do you have anything a vegan can eat?" Gordi asked. I realised I was starving too and got up to rummage through the kitchen cupboards. Eventually, I placed some peanuts, dried apricots and a couple of bananas in front of him. To my relief, Gordi grinned and accepted the offering.
”We're heading across to Sydney on Monday,” he said. “They’re organising a protest march for later in the week. You coming? We can stay at a mate's place."
"What are they protesting about?"
Gordi shrugged his shoulders.
The gauntlet was thrown down, a crossroads, an opportunity for me to move in a different direction. How much did I still want to be a dancer?
"You know, it's great that you can do this stuff full time." I said, the banana feeling like sawdust in my mouth.
"I’m a musician," he stated matter of factly.
"Well, yes, but doesn’t that kinda fit into your life as…" putting on a grandiose voice, trying to sound funny, I went on "…an environmental crusader?"
Gordi smiled, "I guess. I refuse to work in the System, and I refuse to take any Social Security payments from it either. I busk when the money gets low; maybe do a concert with some mates at a festival somewhere."
I took in long, slow breaths. It seemed on one side there was the straight and sure road of study, dance and a degree, and on the other side a yawning chasm, the winding, open-ended road of political activism that provoked a lurking fear in my sensibilities. At that moment, I knew that I could never fully cross over that crevasse. My desire to be a dancer suddenly found a renewed vigour I had not felt for some time, and it coursed through me like a heavy diesel train careering downhill with no brakes. My decision was crystallized, clear, and strong.
"Gordi, I really care about what happens to the environment, but I just can’t keep giving this sort of commitment to all these meetings and protests. Do you understand?"
There was a long pause. Bright dreadlocks partially obscured his downcast eyes. Furrowed eyebrows showed he was deep in thought. Eventually, instead of responding, Gordi smiled enigmatically and reached into his knapsack, pulling out his wooden pan flute. "Hey, how about I play and you dance? Let’s improvise together."
It was his way of offering a truce.
I felt my small, ambitious, vain and selfish self was understood and accepted. Even with these flaws, to Gordi I was fine, just the way I was. It was alright that I chose to prioritise being a dancer over being an activist. "Okay, but not in this," I said looking down at my daggy old pyjamas. I went and put on the flowing white dress I had worn for a College performance.
The lights in the whitewashed lounge room were switched on, flooding the sparse room in a brilliant glow. I felt like I was stepping onto a stage. I crouched low and still in the centre of the room. Gordi began to play a slow haunting melody, and my fingers reached out like fragile tentacles caressing the air. My heart became spacious, and my arms opened up in reflection. The melody rose in volume and intensity, and I rose up, meeting the intensity of the music with my body. It whirled and arched as the music searched me, moved me, flowed through me. The flute’s beat intensified, a throbbing beat was added by my feet pounding the floor after each pirouette, around and around, jumping and turning with each frenzied beat. And then, both the music and the dance stopped, perfectly in sync.
It’s not about me; it’s not about me; it’s not about me, I kept telling myself as my boots clomped against the white linoleum in the basement of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. Round the corner, past the model train set stretched a long, lighted and mostly empty hallway. My skin sizzled as I launched myself into its wide, glowing mouth. Scanning the numbers on office doors as I passed, I searched for G83.
With my fingers mentally crossed, my heart thudded against my ribcage in competition with the beat of my boots on the hard floor. Certainly the pre-op room for children having their appendix out could not possibly be the same pre-op room for children having complex open-heart surgery...