The New York Dance — Early Years

Back in 1991 the most improbable, outlandish, and audacious event transpired — the rebirth of the Naraya amidst the concrete canyons of New York City under the guidance of Clyde Hall, Charles Lawrence, and the New York Dream Council. Thirty-some intrepid New Yorkers gathered around a pine tree in the basement of the Cathedral St. John the Divine, the mother church of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, to sing a handful of mysterious (and seemingly unpronounceable) songs. To Clyde’s amazement and relief, the ancestors made their way to us.

Fast forward to 1996, and we realized we needed a new home to make room for our ever-expanding number of dancers. We ended up at a YMCA summer Camp in Port Jervis, NY, that had an airplane hanger-sized basketball court where we could set up a real indoor village of tents, never mind it was the dead of winter. To our shock and amazement on our first night of dancing, we realized that the ancestors that had lived on this land back in the 1800s had suffered a terrible massacre, and many had not made the journey home to the Other Side Camp. We discovered the land we were on had once been inhabited by the Mohawk nation of peoples. In the traditional and respectful way, over the next year Clyde Hall and many helping hands began the delicate and improbable process of inviting Mohawk elders from Canada to come to our next NY Dance in 1997 — no small task! Only the Mohawks could conduct a feeding of their ancestors and offer prayers for their journey home. Long time dancer Franklin Courson picks up the story from here:

Having responded to our invitation, Charlie Patton and members of the next generation arrived. “Who are they?” was asked on both sides. Not sure what they were getting into, none of our guests unrolled their bedrolls. If they needed to bail they were ready. It’s really humorous in retrospect but in that moment, folks were sizing each other up. And then the evening blossomed with storytelling, good food, laughter and then reverent preparation for the night’s Dance. Face painting and dressing in ceremonial garb. Charlie started nodding but still held his ground. He knew full well why he had been called here. Ancestors from around 200 years had not been buried in a good way. There was sadness hovering over the land despite the optimism and spiritual commitment of the Naraya Dancers.

Over the next three days, various ceremonies and feasts were conducted. Some of the Secret Mask Society work was done apart from the community. We wondered what was going on but trusted that our Brothers from the North were there to help us and that we must trust their connection with Spirit. Even though they pretty much stayed to themselves during the first night’s dance, Charlie and his generations sensed that these were people of good heart. The next day and night found all of us laughing and kidding each other and bonding as Children of Great Mystery do regardless of their heritage or bloodline. Over the years, our connection has been one of family.

As Charlie’s wife, Eileen tells us, this work continues and must continue. We must connect with ceremony, sacred feasts and song to our ancestors. Therein lies learning, gratitude and nurturing for our community not only in this generation but to seven generations forward.

A Naraya Miracle

In 1998, the Mohawk ancestors came forth in sadness and asked for healing. The next year the work began with our Kahnawake relatives. The third year, this healing manifested in a way that was nothing short of a miracle.

“In the long ago time” at the first few dances in New York at St. John the Divine, there was a man who danced regularly. As his family grew, he no longer came but held the Dance in his heart. When his eldest son turned 16, he brought him to Port Jervis to dance and to renew his own connection with the Naraya. The family was of English descent and had lived in New York for many generations.

Not far from the camp there is an historical landmark sign telling of the massacre in the early 1800’s. I had passed that sign many times as I ran errands for the dance into Port Jervis but didn’t really take note of it.

The first night’s dancing, as usual, was where we found our grounding, tuned our voices and opened ourselves to Spirit. Within that Circle was the man and his son. Within that Circle was Charlie and his relatives of the next generation. Two groups locked hand in hand and as far apart culturally as one could be.

During the conversations the next day, the healing work of our Mohawk brothers was retold and new ceremony was conducted. Then a “light bulb” went off. As the ancestors were honored by us, another ancestral connection woke up. There was yet another “healing” that was being called for.

The historical marker on the road was a few miles from the camp, so that gave us an idea of approximately where the massacre took place. The man stood up and tearfully related that his ancestors’ farm was only a few miles from the camp. They too had suffered losses 200 years earlier. It dawned on everyone that having descendants from both cultures in the same Circle dancing for renewal and healing was no accident. Dancing that night with two generations of families and tribes that had been linked to that event in the early 1800’s, the healing work of restoring the soul played out as never before. “We are all relations” took on a new and powerful meaning.

The sacred work of the Naraya is a portal to our ancestral history with all of its sadness and disappointments. Through the Dance, we can mend those strained connections and unite as one People around the Tree of Life, and dance together — transformed and sweetened.

Every Dance around the country has had manifestations of ancestors calling from the past asking healing from those in the present. I have witnessed many of them, and never cease to be amazed at the power and tenderness of these healings.

In these times of isolation, it is vital that we rekindle the storytelling around the fire. This is who we are. We come from different blood lines and different cultures. Ofttimes we find ourselves at odds or think in terms of “us and them”. Our Dance and our spiritual practices are founded in the belief that we are all One People. And it is stories like the descendant of the settlers reconciling with the descendants of the massacred Mohawks that reaffirm that this is the work to which we are called, not once a year but every day.

Mitakuye oyasin,

Franklin Courson 
PIXIE – NY Dancer since 1995