- The Only Cure Is a DanceThe Role of Night Swan in Silko’s Ceremony
When we are first introduced to the character of Night Swan in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, Auntie refers to her as a “whore” and a “dirty Mexican woman” who convinces Josiah to buy a bunch of “worthless cattle” (76). However, in the next twenty pages of the narrative, we find that she is not simply a scheming seductress but is an intensely spiritual and powerful woman who challenges fixed categories of culture, spirituality, and gender. Associated with the rain, the color blue, Mount Taylor, the spotted cows, and Tayo’s ceremony, Silko’s “old cantina dancer with eyes like a cat” (87) has sparked a rich and provocative discussion among scholars that has continued for almost thirty years—a discussion that has typically attempted to (a) articulate who Night Swan is (divine being or powerful female) and (b) determine what she represents in the larger symbolic story of the novel.1 In her seminal text The Sacred Hoop (1986), Paula Gunn Allen asserts that Night Swan’s integral role in Tayo’s ceremony and her connection with the color blue align her with the figure of Ts’eh who is the “universal feminine principle of creation” of Laguna/Keres theology, also known as Ts’its’tsi’nako, Thought Woman, or Grandmother Spider (119). Since Allen’s critical work, scholars such as Louis Owens, Robert Nelson, Gregory Salyer, Sean Kicummah Teuton, Michael Wilson, and Mary Ellen Snodgrass have continued to read Night Swan as one of “Spider Grandmother’s daughters” who leads Tayo back to a place of feeling and calls him “to repair Laguna and even the broader world” (Teuton 144). Yet, despite considerable discussions involving her role as a mythological [End Page 209] figure and spiritual helper, current scholarship seems to have oversimplified Night Swan’s character by largely glossing over another of her roles, one that certainly deserves critical attention: that of flamenco dancer. More than just an exotic spectacle, Silko’s flamenco dancer is a symbol of cross-cultural exchange and a site where commonly held notions of authenticity and inauthenticity, physicality and spirituality, masculinity and femininity, and death and love become disrupted and redefined.
Because scholars have focused on Night Swan’s sexuality as representative of a cosmic female life force, the significance of Night Swan’s dance has remained relatively unrecognized or has been oversimplified as a tool for seduction. In some cases her dance has even been conflated with her sexuality. In Matthew Teorey’s essay on the transformative energy of Spider Woman, he argues that Night Swan “seduces Tayo through dance” (8), but we don’t ever actually see Night Swan dance for Tayo in the novel (only for Josiah and her previous lover). This type of slippage is understandable because, as Judith Lynne Hanna explains in Dance, Sex, and Gender, “sexuality and dance share the same instrument—the human body” (xiii). Despite the obvious connections between dance, the dancing body, and sexuality, I urge scholars to look beyond this over-simplification and to see dance as a form of human empowerment. Dance has the capacity not only to reflect the feelings, struggles, and desires of the dancer but also to offer the dancer a unique way of connecting and freeing body, mind, and spirit. As dance theorist Elizabeth Dempster explains, “In moments of dancing the edges of things blur and terms such as mind/body, flesh/spirit, carnal/divine, male/female become labile and unmoored, breaking loose from the fixity of their pairings” (35). Thus, if we neglect the role of dance in Night Swan’s life, we overlook the possibility of dance as a powerful tool for truth-making and we disregard dance’s role in the complex process of physical/spiritual and individual/communal growth that Night Swan undergoes in the novel.
Examining the role that dance plays in Night Swan’s life pries open an alternate way of understanding several issues in the novel that have challenged readers and scholars alike. First, by exploring Night Swan’s dance, we can better understand how dance functions [End Page 210] as...