Guedra Living Ritual

Guedra: Inside the Living Ritual

by Jenna Gracia Woods

I first heard of guedra a few years ago, when I began attending events of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). Boulder, Colorado, where I live, is part of the SCA kingdom known as the Outlands. Within the Outlands, for several years, a group of women from Albuquerque, New Mexico have been conducting guedra circles at SCA weekend camping events.

About 7 years ago, at the Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp in Mendocino, California, Beau Tappan and her friends, most of whom are dancers and members of the band Sazlar, encountered a women named Katerine Burda. After having first been introduced to guedra in classes with Morocco, Katerine had gone on to explore it more on her own, including living among Moroccan Berbers themselves. Beau describes their experience with Katerine as “plentiful good fortune,” for she gave them a working knowledge of the guedra. They met every afternoon for six days, familiarizing themselves with the practice, usually staying together longer than the time limit they tried to set for themselves. Since that time, they have been holding guedra circles and teaching people to use the ritual to its fullest benefit.

Two years ago I withdrew from my first circle as they were beginning instruction, because the experience was too strong for me at the time. In February of 1996, at Estrella War outside of Phoenix, Arizona, I attended an entire ritual. Estrella War is a huge annual camping event. There were about 5,000 people spread across the site in tents. While most of them set up in some sort of Medieval European style, Middle Eastern households tend to set up in exotic style. Some have Bedouin tents, others pitch tents closely together to create women’s quarters, kitchens, etc. These are often decorated, sometimes very elaborately, with carpets, cushions, draperies, tassels, tapestries, lanterns, and furniture. The guedra I attended was held in the harem of a large household. The women were seated on cushions in a circle. I remained outside the circle, by the doorway, so that if my previous experience repeated itself, I might leave discretely. We were all dressed in Middle Eastern style clothing. The floor was carpeted with plush Orientals, and there were more carpets displayed on the walls of the pavilion. A low-hanging brass lantern was removed from the center of the room, so that it would not endanger the dancers.

First, the guedra leaders had us exchange names, and asked who had not been to a guedra before. Then they began to explain. Traditionally, a guedra is a community event in which many village inhabitants participate. Today, guedra is performed as an amusement for spectators in Moroccan cities frequented by tourists. The word guedra literally means an earthenware cooking pot, which has been covered with a skin so that it may be used as a drum. The guedra pot is used to set the rhythm for the chanting. The guedra ritual is a way of pooling energies to accomplish a purpose, which may be either a private focus or a group endeavor. A purpose might be anything, for any kind of help for oneself or for someone else; it is important for the health and safety of the group that everyone’s purpose be of positive intent. Before the ritual begins, each participant focuses attention on their desired outcome. For instance, energy and strength may be directed towards someone who is not feeling well; it may be directed towards finding a lost object. Some also believe that spirits can be channeled or exorcised through the guedra dancers. Each dancer’s purpose, then, is “thrown into the pot” of the circle, using the movements of the dance.

The word dance is not quite accurate. There are specific movements used by the women who enter the circle, but these are more a set of ritualized gestures and movements, rather than a dance form. The women form a circle, either standing or sitting. They remain close enough to be touching one another, keeping the circle closed in order to contain the energy. Although traditionally the actual dancing is limited to women, men participate in the chanting and drumming, which is as much a part of the event as the dance. The men gather around the outside of the women’s circle, forming another circle or clustering together at points. Their part in the ritual is to protect the women, shielding them from outside interference and making sure each dancer stays within the circle until she has completed her dance. This is necessary because women become vulnerable when they participate in the guedra. One traditional belief about this is that a woman’s spirit might escape her if she leaves the protection of the circle prematurely.

Jenna Gracia Woods. Photo: Pat Taylor (Clea).

At Estrella, we did not have an outer circle, but there were two drummers present, seated as guardians in opposite corners of the room. One was a women, and the other was a young man. On impulse, I asked our hostess for permission to drum also; with the group’s consent, she gave me a dumbek. I began to feel that my own purpose was to be a guardian as well, and I moved so that I was sitting in the middle of the doorway.

Beau then briefly explained some of the movements of the dance. In their sessions at Mendocino, Katerine had taught them a variety of hand gestures and movements, each seeming to direct and build energy in a different way. She instructed them to simply use whatever movements worked best for them. Beau demonstrated how to flick the hands sharply away from the body to throw the energy out; how to use pushing gestures to build a shield, and how to use upward and downward pointing gestures. She also demonstrated a powerful arch and contraction movement. Because of the force of this movement, women preparing to enter the circle removed their rings, earrings, and heavy necklaces, and had heavy hair ornaments tied back, so that they would not be hit in the face or send jewelry flying to hit anyone else. Beau explained that each dancer begins her dance in privacy, draped completely in veils. In the course of the dance, the veils usually slip off, and a dancer should ignore that if it happens, and keep dancing; she might also have her veils removed by someone in the circle, at a prearranged point. A dancer might begin standing on her knees, sitting on her heels, or by standing on her feet and then sinking to her knees. As the first phase of the chanting progresses, she sits on her knees, bouncing rhythmically. As she moves through her dance, she works with the gestures to build and direct her energy, and as she moves into the final phase of the chanting she uses specific postures and patterns to direct her abandonment.

The chants were originally sung in the native Berber language. So that the tradition could continue after the guedra was banned under Muslim domination, new chants evolved in Arabic which retain the tonal and phonic tradition, but are compatible with Islamic practices. We were taught several different chants, in the two-part sections of a call-and-response format. The women of the circle numbered off, 1-2-1-2-1-2, with a leader for the ones, chanting the call, and a leader for the twos, chanting the response. In this way, all of the calls and all of the responses came from all directions, and those dancing in the center were literally surrounded by the sound. This is significant for it is an experience which cannot be duplicated with a recording. All of the chants were accompanied with clapping and drumming. The callers clapped on beats 1 & 3 of the chant, and the responders clapped on 2 & 4. The drummers were taught to play a simple dum on beats 1 & 3, accompanying the callers.

During a single dance cycle, each chant has at least two phases of intensity, to facilitate the movement of the dancers and the levels of trance they achieve. The first phase of the chants allows the dancers to bring themselves to a heightened level of energy, focus, and trance. The final phase, which is always the same chorus no matter how the chant begins, brings the dancers to a peak and a collapse, which allows for complete physical and emotional release, if all goes well. It is quite common for chanters and dancers alike to weep openly, sometimes with joy, sometimes with sorrow, sometimes both. It is because of this peak and collapse that it is important for all of the other guedra participants to continue chanting and drumming until every dancer in the center of the circle has completed her cycle of the ritual.

Then came the question: who wants to begin? There can be as many dancers inside the circle as the size of the circle allows, and our circle was small. Two women moved to the center of the circle. Each pulled a veil from the pile of veils left there for them, which they draped over their heads so that they were completely covered. They sat on their knees, far enough apart to avoid striking one another. They were asked to choose a chant, and we began. We drummed and chanted until both of the dancers had finished dancing and had collapsed. The women of the circle were instructed to touch the dancers to help ground them. When the dancers recovered from their trances, they rejoined the circle. Others then moved into the center, covered themselves, chose one of the chants, and we began again. Watching as I drummed, I found the ritual to be a very powerful experience. The dancers were dancing for themselves, for their own private purposes, and their movements were strong and honest, often full of emotion. Many of them began to cry during their dances, or after they collapsed. Their emotion affected others of us, causing bursts of empathy. I do not know how many times we repeated the drumming and chanting, and I do not know how many women danced in the center of the circle that day; certainly not all of us.

When the last dancer finished and had recovered, our leaders cautioned all of us to realize that we were very vulnerable in the state we had induced, and we needed to be very careful as we went back out among all the other people. Also, we needed to eat as soon as possible, to help ground ourselves; chocolate and meat were recommended. Someone had brought a bag of chocolate kisses, which they passed around. The overall feeling was light, a feeling of something done well together. We had been in the harem from 1 I :00 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon.

From “Guedra,” by Beau Tappan:

We do not “perform” the guedra. We invite participation, but have not been comfortable with having spectators or audiences. Participation in guedra creates a bond that we had not experienced before. The connections made are difficult to describe, but the collaboration required to accomplish it leaves its engrams upon us. It is not that we don’t trance in our society. We trance unknowingly, stirring up and directing energies without even being aware of it. We often enter trance states while watching TV, listening to redundant rhythms, driving long distances, sitting at stop lights, and on and on. Few of us have learned how to utilize this ability. In a society which tends to fragment women from women, and men from women, how can such a thing not offer a benefit? Guedra is many things.

Jenna Gracia Woods has been involved in Middle Eastern dance since 1974, and teaches in Boulder, CO. She is also an intern Aston-Patterning practitioner, and has trained with Adnan Sarhan to teach Shattari method Sufi work. She began playing a Middle Eastern persona in the SCA in 1993 with her husband, drummer Billy Woods (Eyes Behind the Veil CD), and together they teach drum, dance, and zill workshops. She has written for Veil and Drum and Massage and Bodywork Quarterly

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