Womyn who can't wait till August re-create the vibe with Halfway to Michfest.
Wed Feb 27 2008
For regulars of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, held each August in Walhalla, Michigan, waiting an entire year for the beloved, utopian week to roll around again can feel intolerable. This week, two New Jersey women are offering a bit of relief in the form of Halfway to Michfest, a party that will mark the midway point by taking over Cattyshack for one night with the spirit of Walhalla.
"I wait all year round for Michigan," says Lisa Snyder, 26, a new-media producer who created the annual bash with Meredith Villano, 32 (also in new media), in 2005. "The festival is such a huge growing experience. It opened so many doorways inside of myself, and I thought it would be beneficial to women in the New York area."
A cultural institution among lesbians and the largest of what has become a national circuit of similar fests, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival was launched in 1976 with the idea of creating an exclusive, safe space for women. Providing camping areas on private land; high-quality music performances; and enlisting volunteers to help run the event (with a cooperative philosophy that has attendees volunteering some of their time to make the place run) are all parts of the Michigan scene. Over the years, it's grown from a humble gathering to a massive, weeklong extravaganza that attracts more than 10,000 women. There are communal vegetarian meals and workshops on everything from astrology and archery to midwifery and internalized misogyny. Headlining performers over the years have included Ferron, Melissa Ferrick, Alix Olson, Toshi Reagon, Bitch, BETTY, Erin McKeown and Lesbians on Ecstasy. More than all of that, though, it's a chance to live in a woman-only society for a full week, which is a profound experience for those who attend.
"My first one was mind-blowing and life-altering," recalls Snyder. "I had never met so many people just ready to be present with you and not judge you. I've never felt so safe in my whole life."
To bring that vibe to Brooklyn, Snyder and Villano (a Michigan virgin who plans to attend this year) have gotten creative in their party offerings—and found that sometimes it's not all that easy to translate for oft-jaded New York dykes. "It's challenging, because I feel like so many New York City people are, if not closed off, without a safe space to express themselves. This is to show people that it can exist." Last year, the soiree offered breast casting—a popular Michigan art, in which topless women can get plaster casts made of their girls. But it was a bit much for Brooklynites, who chose to keep their tops on for the night. "We were the only ones who got it done," Villano recalls with a laugh.
This year's event brings various treats, including a drumming circle to get everyone in the mood, a vending area with designs by Dykes in the City and a "pasta night" dinner, modeled on a Michigan staple. Entertainment will be reminiscent of the fest, with a lineup that includes bluesy Bronx musician Nedra Johnson and acclaimed spoken-word artist Staceyann Chinn. Both are Michigan vets.
"Michigan gave me a chance to see what women look like without men," Chinn says. "I felt safe in a way that I'd never felt safe before." While the festival has gotten some heat in recent years because of its policy of being for "womyn born womyn" who identify as women—setting off anger within the trans community—Chinn remains a staunch supporter. "I still maintain that exclusive spaces are important," she says.
Snyder and Villano say they've gotten a couple of inquiries over the years about where they stand with the policy (they favor inclusion of transwomen), but never any negative feedback. They've been so inspired by the positivity, in fact, that the duo formed the organization Paradigm Shift: NYC's Feminist Community (paradigmshiftnyc.com), which gathers women for monthly New York performances, discussions and social events.
"I think the [Michigan-type] community exists in New York; it's just fractured," Villano says. Paradigm Shift—and the Halfway party—are ways of trying to bring everyone together.
According to Michigan festival founder Lisa Vogel, the Brooklyn bash is just one of about 20 halfway parties in cities across the country this year. While Michigan does provide support and inspiration through e-mail blasts to folks who want to get their own parties going, the Brooklyn bash has made a particular impression on Vogel. "The New York crew is fabulous—they have the musicians' support, and it's pretty much the essence of what we hope we're creating at Michigan," she says, "which is that there's an energy and spirit we hope women can take away."
Halfway to Michfest is Sat 1 at Cattyshack.