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

Wednesday, Jul 31 2002
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 Arcade show. Their flat was totally cool, lots of lion and tiger stuff, a brass paw-knocker on the door, bamboo window shades.

"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 Bratmobile show. 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 Daniels as 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.

Trust, time management, insecurity, and family dinners come up as topics of concern.

"Sure, it's one thing to show up for Christmas with your girlfriend," chuckles Easton, "but show up with another couple or a trio and no one knows what to do!" The class laughs in accord.

I scamper downstairs to the Ladyfest comments board, which includes a lost and found list; car share info; a growing register of do-it-yourself guerrilla workshops, such as the "Jew Crew" and "Partners of Trans People," meeting in Dolores Park; and a roll call of lady crushes, featuring Lionel Ritchie. In the lower left corner of the board is a complaint from someone who feels excluded. A reply is added: "Hang in there, SF folks can be jaded." Another says, "Meet me on the stairs at 2 p.m. I'll introduce you to some people."

I duck into "Creating Without Consuming" and learn how to weave purses from garbage bags and make personal altars from AOL junk mail. I find out just how difficult it is to announce the best part of your own body to a room of 40 ladies in "Better Body Image." I drop in at the dance studio to catch the gleeful, uncoordinated break-dancing debut of the Sisterz of the Underground's workshop students; and ponder the reluctance women feel to shout "No!" -- even in a three-hour-long self-defense class. By 7:30, when hundreds of ladies and their doting admirers are lining up outside the auditorium for a live concert, I'm beginning to wonder if I have what it takes to be a lady.

"I feel almost like a grandmother here," chuckles 38-year-old Rachel Pepper on the fourth day of the festival. Pepper's 4-year-old daughter pulls the super-sassy single mom, author, and owner of Bernal Books down the hall, away from "Hip Mama," a child-friendly, tattoo-heavy workshop facilitated by radical parenting publishers Ariel Gore and Bee Lavendar.

"It's wonderful to see what the gals are up to, though," says Pepper as she looks over the records and zines in the Ladyfest bazaar. "So much female energy reaching critical mass. It's really great. They should offer child care next year."

"I'd like to see more representation from middle-class moms and first-rung feminists," says Laura Hayden, a full-time mom from Monterey. She stops to take a picture of her freshman daughter, Ripley Hayden, as she is given a real-hair goatee by the Disposable Boy Toys drag king troupe of Santa Barbara. "This is a really positive way for girls to explore alternative lifestyles. It's important. There shouldn't be so much fear associated with festivals like this among parents."

"After our self-defense class, we were too tired to even go to the show last night," confesses 14-year-old bi-identified Jayme Trinkle, one of Ripley Hayden's school friends. "It was kind of hard to shout 'No!' over and over again. We're taught to be so polite all the time. ... It was a great experience for me."

I think I finally understand Ladyfest.

As I walk down the hall, a number of familiar ladies, and some of their like-minded boyfriends, wave good afternoon; someone puts a flower barrette in my hair and someone else offers me a bottle of water. A congratulatory shout erupts out of Room 234 and echoes through the hall: "Fat! Faaat!!"

"It's the 'Fat as Fuck' workshop," explains Laila Chappell, clutching a thrift bag in one hand and half an inch of baby belly flesh in the other. "It's super super fun, even if you just think you're fat."

I definitely appreciate Ladyfest.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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