Joining Distaff

From Polynesian fire-spinning to polyamory, there's something for every girl at Ladyfest Bay Area

The steps of Mission High School are teeming with young women in all shapes and guises, eating their lunches and taking in the afternoon sun. Oregon's Cheryl Maquiss, a 17-year-old in an orange and pink minidress and blue low-tops, flips through a zine called Bitch Puss while her friend Laila Chappell rifles though their knapsacks looking for a bag of bagels. Neither girl has ever been to San Francisco before, and they brought just enough money for food, two four-day passes for Ladyfest Bay Area, and one night in a hotel.

It's day three and the hotel cash is still in reserve.

"The first two nights, we stayed with these girls who call themselves the Saucy Sowse (I guess 'sowse' is a group of female lions)," says Chappell. "We met one of them at the stilt-walking workshop, and then we met the rest at the Penny Arcadeshow. Their flat was totally cool, lots of lion and tiger stuff, a brass paw-knocker on the door, bamboo window shades.

The gleeful, uncoordinated break-dancing debut of the 
Sisterz of the Underground's workshop students.
Brandon Fernandez
The gleeful, uncoordinated break-dancing debut of the Sisterz of the Underground's workshop students.
The gleeful, uncoordinated break-dancing debut of the 
Sisterz of the Underground's workshop students.
Brandon Fernandez
The gleeful, uncoordinated break-dancing debut of the Sisterz of the Underground's workshop students.

"They have a whole bunch of friends coming up from Los Angeles today, so we're going to try and find somewhere else to stay tonight, but we'll definitely stay in touch with them and stuff."

"If we don't have to break down and get a hotel tonight," says Maquiss, "we're going thrifting tomorrow."

Either way, the lifelong friends are not worried. Their experience in Olympia, during Ladyfest 2000, gave them the guts to travel on a shoestring budget and trust the instant kinship that the festival engenders.

"Olympia's just a couple hours from where we live so it was super easy for us in 2000," says Chappell, who was 14 at the time, "but we met a lot of people who came from all over the place. So, this year, we hopped on a bus."

"Next year, we're hopping a train," says Maquiss, still enamored by "DIY Travel: The Idiot's Guide to Hitchhiking and Trainhopping,"a Ladyfest workshop held on Thursday afternoon. "Anything's gotta be better than Greyhound, right?" Chappell nods emphatically and wanders over to 22-year-old Jasmine Tuerk, a punky femme who recognizes Chappell from last night's Bratmobileshow. Tuerk gazes desperately at the snarl of black yarn sitting in her lap.

"I tried to take the knitting class with Jen Smith [guitarist for the Quails], but I was too late. The workshop was full," says Tuerk. "A friend of mine offered to show me the basics, but I'm pretty much hopeless." Chappell smiles and kneels down to help untangle the yarn. "Knitting's easy," she says, starting a new friendship with a skill she never thought would come in handy. On the sidewalk below, a pack of dykes -- short hair, tank tops, cut-off chinos, and wallet chains -- suddenly disperses.

"I'm gonna catch the film panel," says 26-year-old Denny Danielsas she and two friends approach the cool darkness of the high school lobby. Daniels' friends nod and head off toward a salsa class in the basement while I follow Daniels to the activities board, a sheet of white paper that lists workshop changes by the hour. She nods at several people on the short distance between the doorway and the board.

"I don't really know them, but by now, we've started to recognize people," explains Daniels. "A lot of the same faces show up at the film screenings and movie workshops. I'm sure it's the same for the art exhibits and crafts workshops, or the dance classes, or the recording workshops, or the political discussions. I think everyone goes to the concerts. But, by the end, there'll be little communities within the larger community of Ladyfest. It's a great way to network if you're just starting out, but it's also a perfect way to sample a bunch of new things. You should check out a bunch of stuff you've never thought about before."

I select "Ethical Sluts: How to Do Polyamory Well and Thoroughly," "Fire Poiing for Beginners," "Breakdancing: Sisterz of the Underground," and "FORCCE: Self Defense for Social Change."

Fire poiing is the much overused but still charming Polynesian art of fire spinning, performed with two lengths of chain and four wicks. I find the class in the middle of a hallway on the second floor, practicing on day poi, which consists, thankfully, of ropes attached to cloth-wrapped tennis balls, trailing tails of fabric instead of flame. The students, an unlikely assortment of a dozen ladies, smile contentedly as they master the wrist action and watch the poi twirling around their shoulders. Then the instructors add an about-face. It seems easy enough to simply turn around, but there is physics involved. The instructors suggest practicing with one arm, then the other. Of course, a few students go for broke, finding themselves instantly entangled in their poi. Others end up similarly wrapped even one-handed.

"Ever see something so ridiculous?" asks a podiatrist in pink pedal pushers. "Only at Ladyfest."

In a room down the hall, Dossie Easton, Ladyfest's resident expert on polyamorous lifestyles, poses the question, "What else is enticing about sluttery?" She adds "collaborative, not competitive," "independence," "letting go of jealousy," "extended families," "communication," and "excitement" to a growing list on the chalkboard. "How 'bout the drawbacks?" she asks as more women squeeze into the standing-room-only classroom.

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