One of the most courageous things I’ve ever done was slap my bare hand down on a piece of dried animal skin. It made a noise. A noise other people heard. And I was being judged on that noise.

I’ve always been a shy person. And despite my years of guitar playing, I’ve always been sensitive about my rhythmic failings. Learning to hand drum was intimidating…and learning to do it with the expectation that I would be drumming for dancers? Nearly crippling. But what’s the point of living if you don’t constantly challenge yourself?

Like everything in life, bellydancing can be competitive. Drummers run the whole range of talent, and so do dancers. Some people you can look up to, others you can laugh at. There is a hierarchy, and you can move up it. But the whole point is to work together. And there is nothing quite like being part of a small group hammering out a beat, in tight partnership with each other and the dancers.

In swordplay we often have a hard time grasping what it is that keeps us training. It’s easy for the competitors. They have concrete, measurable goals. Even the losses provide a point of reference. You know where you stand because others stand above or below you. You train to change where you stand. It’s hard for the competitors to understand any other valid way to look at things.

I had to force myself to see things that way, and I did for a long time. In the swordplay circles I was in, it was the only acceptable point of view. I had to adapt or drop out. I adapted, but it was a bad fit. Eventually I came to realize that my experiences of joyful fencing couldn’t be described by competition, but rather cooperation.

The bouts that always stand out in my mind are all intensely competitive. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to describe them as being more in the nature of self-defense than friendly competition. In each case I was fighting for my life, and I don’t recall masks or blunts on the tips of the swords. I know they were there because of the circumstances, but my mind doesn’t see them. It only recalls the sensation of extreme risk, and the need to perform at the limits of my ability and beyond.

There was competition, but it wasn’t the only thing happening. I also recall huge grins on my face and my opponents. Grins, and an incredible sense of joie de vivre at the end of the bout. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that lately. Recalling bouts, thinking about the select group of people I truly enjoy fencing with. What is it about some people that just makes swordplay the epitome of joy?

Somehow deep within that exchange of blades and drive to kill the other person, a mutual cooperation happens. It’s a desire to create something, to taste a kind of reality that is bigger than anything we encounter in daily life. If we push each other hard enough, we can reach a higher plane. A sublime taste of what real perfection could be, if we had been born better people. Two fencers together can create a kind of music, a simultaneous pairing of drummer and dancer.

In that space there is a sense of creating a new thing. Like musicians, it’s a feeling of creation not just for the self, but for an audience. An unknown audience, perhaps. It’s difficult to explain the experience. Those who know, just know. Once you’ve been to that place, it can be difficult to fence with people who don’t know. Fencing with pure competitors can make you feel unclean. Soiled. The distaste can grow to the point where you don’t want to pick up your sword anymore.

You get through it by nurturing others, by finding those with the potential to play with the band, fellow drummers and dancers. You push them along, challenging them, keeping them off balance and training hard, waiting for the breakthrough. Some will never make it, never find their membership in the secret society of fencers. But most do. Those called to the path tend to find their way, if they can avoid the many pitfalls. It can be a lonely road from time to time, but the fellow travellers make the journey more than worthwhile.