In the summer of 2019, I had the most powerful dance experience of my life with Orly Portal‘s Swiria (סוויריה). I didn’t go back the following year because I’d decided to take on becoming a homeroom teacher and Sundays, the days we had the Swiria course from the morning to the afternoon, were required work days at the school. For two years since, I’d been eating my heart out on the regular. I would see the women that I started with progressing, dancing on rooftops or in the forest during lockdown, performing on the stage, fulfilling the dream that I had come for in the first place.
I asked myself “How could I do it?” How could I have taken this away from myself? For what? Was the task I had taken upon myself worth the dream deferred?” (Especially since what was supposed to be a four year journey as a Waldorf high school homeroom teacher came to an abrupt end after its second year–but that’s a topic for another post.)
And then, on Wednesday, October 6th, I entered the studio in Ein Shemer for the first time after a two-year hiatus. I felt the return home. Already, at the beginning of class, during the stretches, I had tears of gratitude in my eyes. What’s most important is that I am here. What’s most important is that I returned. What’s most important is that I have learned my lesson, to never say “no” again to what is good for my entire being. But rather, to always say an enthusiastic yes, with a full heart, no matter what, with faith that the rest will work themselves out.
After that performance in August 2019, I wrote a piece that I never shared publicly. In honor of my return, it is time for it to come to light. At the end, I have a little surprise. There is a hint in the title.
How do I begin to process what Swarriya סוויריה has meant for me? ובאיזו שפה? (–and in which language?)
זאת המילה שמלווה אותי כל הדרך. (This is the word that carries me along the way.)
In Hebrew there is no satisfactory translation because it misses a cultural significance.
בעברית הפירוש הוא “עדות” אבל באנגלית, בתרבות של הכנסיות האפרו-אמריקאיות המשמעות היא לבוא מול הקהל ולהעיד על איזה נסים נעשה בחייך עלי יד הכוח העליון. לספר איך הגעת לכאן ומען באת. איך רק זכות האמונה ניצלת.
(In English, it carries connotations of the African American church, meaning to come in front of the congregation and “give a testimony” on the miracles done in your life by the higher power. To tell how you got here and where you came from. How only by the power of faith were you saved.)
My story with Swarriya begins over four years ago  when I saw it performed: The Gnawa trance called me to the stage to dance it; the fusion with Gill Scott Heron’s spoken word spoke to my soul—beats of the descendants of slaves from the east meet voice of the descendants of slaves from the west. I wanted to jump on stage and thus begin the obsession. זרע החלום ניטע. (The seed of the dream took root.)
“It’s your rhythm.”
(She told me once at a workshop in Jerusalem.)
“זה הקצב שלך,”
היא אמרה לי פעם בסדנה נדירה בי”ם.
The story of my rhythm spans decades—from being told I couldn’t dance to being told I was born to dance, to recognizing my own rhythm.
She was always too far, too out of reach, but when Swarriya came for reincarnation, I couldn’t resist. With the help of Ella’s faith, I made the pilgrimage to Ein Shemer.
אורלי אמרה פעם, “תעשו מחקר. תראו מאיפה באנו. המקור של ריקוד היה לסיבה הזאת בלבד, להזמין את הרוחות לעזור לנו. כולכן באתן—בין אם ראיתן את סוויריה או לא, בין אם ידעתן או לא—להתחבר לדבר הזה.”
(Orly said once, “Do some research and look where we came from. The origin of dance was for this reason only, to invite the spirits to come help us. All of you came here—whether saw Sawarriya or not whether you know it or not— to connect to this.”)
On April 30th I sprained my ankle. I couldn’t walk for weeks. I couldn’t dance for two months. I never posted about this. I mourned the performance in between physical therapy appointments. I undulated between hope and despair. One month before the show I was told I could dance again. The 2nd rehearsal day that I returned I entered a trance in the last ceremony and felt orgasmic joy surge through my chest and pour out in tears of gratitude. This is a testimony.
“She’s on it,”
Orly said the week before the performance about “New York” and I started messing up what I knew well. The performances were on Thursday and Friday. I was crying from Sunday, Monday I had a panic attack, and cried myself to sleep קניתי רסקיו לפעם הראשונה. On Tuesday, I called Ella crying.
שוב אלה בעלת אמונה הרגיעה אותי. אין מלווה יותר מסורה. עבודת קודש היא עושה.
(I bought Rescue for the first time. Again, faithful Ella calmed me down. There is no more dedicated accompaniment than her. What she does is holy work.)
On Wednesday, the day before the performance Orly pulled me out to the front with one instruction: “יש לך מצב.” (You’re under a spell.)
אז קיבלתי מצב. (So, I fell under a spell.)
Like a magician, a conductor, a mad puppeteer, she pulled out of me what I didn’t even know I had in me to do. And yet it was what I’d been waiting for my entire life, only I did not believe I was worthy.
I went from a sprained ankle to a solo. This is a testimony.
I lost my voice the night before the show. I drank zaatar tea and prayed and held my lapis lazuli. I coughed half the night. My voice came back. And on Thursday I sang “lord have mercy” with all my might; I sang of being healed. I learned to appreciate every functioning part of my body. This is a testimony.
“I thought you were going to melt and turn into butter,” the old lady said, “I thought you were going to just, poof, disappear.”
“זה נכון, היית אנרגיה טהורה,” אורלי אמרה. (“It’s true, you were pure energy,” Orly said.)
“I tell you: one must still have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star.”
~Thus Spoke Zarathustra
“אדם אשר אין בו כאוס
לא יכול להוליד כוכב רוקד.
יש בך כאוס, יש בך כאוס!
יש. יש. יש.”
I confess, I’d never felt so connected before to the continent that was sometimes too proud of its lineage to take in a bastard of the West. But these slaves who made beats with their chains and transformed them into praise songs, I know these songs; my soul has heard them before; they call me home.
Swarriya is more than Gnawa meets Gil Scott, more than dancing, Moroccan singing, krakebs (qraqeb/garagab) and zills. It’s my story. It’s where all of my parts could finally meet. I danced who I am.
“תודה שראית אותי,” (“Thank you for seeing me,”)
I told her after it was all over.
“איך אפשר שלא?” (“How could I not?”)
אני אסירת תודה אין קץ על המתנה שנקראת “סווירה” מאורלי פורטל האחד ויחידה.
גבולות של האפשרי נפתחו לי. “אני חדשה כאן.”
I am endlessly grateful for the gift that is called “Swarriya” from the only and only Orly Portal.
The borders of possibility have opened up to me. “I am new here.”
אלף תודות לאלה, שאמונתה הבלתי פוסקת החזיקה אותי מההתחלה ועד הסוף.
כמה ראוי היה לשיר את שבחיך בסוויריה. שיבחתי את שמך מכל ליבי ובאושר עד.
ותודה לשבט הנשים שלי, אחיות הטקס ושותפות במסע לכוהנות.
*[Translations were added for the purposes of this blog post. They are not always 100% accurate–because they cannot be, but aim to convey the essence of the message. Also at the time of writing it, I spelled it “Swarriya” vs. the “Swiria” on the work’s website, but there is no one spelling in English.]
At the “after party,” one of the girls asked me, “Do you know any gospel songs?” If there is a way to end a testimony, then this is it: