831 -- Tales from the Area CodeImagine a couple passing through Big Sur on their way from San Francisco to L.A., driving past parched yellow grasslands that give way to dark, dank redwoods lining the Big Sur River. On a lark, they decide to spend their Saturday night over food and drink at the River Inn. Only upon entering the lobby do they realize that something is amiss.

They''ve left their usual world, that of their credit cards, their convertible and their tourist pamphlet hyping the beauty of McWay Falls, to enter a new reality. Inside the musky room, a heavy rhythm pervades the air, filling the crevices of the room and vibrating the bodies of those within it. In the center, accompanied by omnipresent drums, a wailing didgeridoo and an unearthly chanting, a woman dances with a sword. She wears a headdress made of what appears to be the remains of Beowulf''s monster Grendel. She moves lightly but sensually, and her body seems linked to something primeval--something not of this world, yet an underlying part of it. The sword flashes, less a prop than an extension of her being.

The couple look at each other, ready to run out the door, yet strangely drawn to the scene. The dancer spins near, engages the man, and before he can help himself he''s part of the dance, and then his wife is drawn in, and the entire audience suddenly become participants in the spectacle, a whirling pool of limbs moving in time to the inescapable drums.

The dancing woman is Teresa Bradford, and the drummers behind her are the Big Sur Natives. If you live in Monterey County and have not seen them, you''re missing out on one heck of an experience.

The group that has evolved into the Natives started back in 1976. Teresa grew up in Big Sur. She met her husband Brock, one of the central drummers in the group, when he picked her up hitchhiking one day.

Their mutual love for music and for Big Sur led them to start performing with others at local venues, including Nepenthe and Esalen. By 1991, however, the River Inn had more or less become the Natives'' permanent home, with only occasional performances outside its cozy confines. Since then the Natives have only grown in popularity. As a result, the price of admission has increased, mainly to reduce the number of attendees. It hasn''t worked. At a show in March during a torrential downpour, the Inn was packed from wall to wall, and some would-be audience members stood outside in the rain, sans umbrellas, just to catch a glimpse of the magic inside.

The Fair Young Maidens

Although Teresa deserves credit as the central dancer, she vehemently denies that''s her role, instead turning the spotlight to a group of beautiful young women who perform a large portion of the dancing at each show. Most of these girls have gotten into dancing through a class that Teresa teaches each Monday in Big Sur. Like early punk rock groups, these beginning dancers, even without technical skills, do a better job at conveying their feelings than some professional ballet dancers.

"They''re just getting their feet into the water," says Teresa. "It''s not polished or shiny. Just raw spirit."

"A lot of these girls go on," puts in Brock. "They get inspired and spend the rest of their life dancing." Some of Teresa''s students have gone on to study in lands as far away as India and Greece.

"One of my duties is to scratch the surface of the fair young maidens, to stir them up," says Teresa. "We have them only a short time, like flowers that bloom and are gone."

The group is made up mostly of percussionists, but it also incorporates other instruments such as the didgeridoo and a recent addition, a keyboard, that lends a higher-toned ethereal feel to the music. Locals in Big Sur tend to be stubborn, but that tension among the musicians only adds to the mix.

"It''s amazing we can ever play together," says Brock.

"Each one of the musicians truly are leaders within themselves," adds Teresa. "There''s a strong will there."

Whatever the reason, the dynamic of the group seems to work. At the April show I scoffed at the $10 admission, preferring to take a free seat on the back porch, only to end up with the rhythm so thoroughly lodged in my bones that I happily paid the ten bucks before the first jam was through.

Knotheads and Southern Baptists

The basic setup of a Big Sur Natives show is generally the same each time. The performance starts out with an invocation, followed by a number of jams with one dancer usually taking center stage per jam. These can radically range in style. At one show I saw an older man dressed as a Magi, with Teresa and the other dancers using large hoops to indicate some sort of doorway, perhaps to an alternate world. Another show began with a younger dancer in a heap on the floor. As the music progressed, she arose and wove a strange path around the room, writhing in time to the drums, only to collapse back onto the ground at the end.

About halfway through, audience members are selectively brought up to dance, with the eventual result being an out-and-out free-for-all where the musicians and dancers merge with the audience for an intensively interactive end to the evening.

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As far as the metaphysics involved with these performances, though, well, your guess is as good as mine.

"What happens is total magic," says Teresa. "It''s a jar that captures the alche-mical. The River Inn gets transformed."

"It''s more of an experience than a performance," Brock corrects me when I use the P-word. "When it really happens, it''s really good. The music is built on waves. It builds and drops, goes up and down, ebbs and flows."

And like any good experience, the audience is an integral part of the event. On any given night, the crowd in attendance will consist of several regulars and a number of Natives virgins. "It''s a safe environment for all types of people," says Teresa. "You have your knotheads, you have your Southern Baptists. Everyone''s comfortable. I love to play with the people [when I dance.] I go around and stir the pot. It''s the ones sitting down in the corner that truly want to get up."

In addition to the Natives shows, Brock and Teresa contribute to the Big Sur community in other ways. In 1988 Teresa opened the Heart Beat Gallery of Gifts, located next to the River Inn. The store contains an assortment of crystals, clothes, musical instruments and other items that seem to fit with the general atmosphere of a Natives show.

"Heart Beat was named because it was from the heart and we needed something dealing with percussion," says Teresa. "It''s a bit of a pun."

In the meantime, the Natives shows seem to be picking up for the summer. The next performance at the River Inn will be on June 23. Teresa and Brock seem to have no plans to slow down any time soon.

"We''re trying to preserve the spirit of Big Sur," says Teresa. "It''s nice to be able to go out on the porch in the evening and play drums to the canyon, to go deeper and deeper. Without complaints from a new neighbor."

"We''re the last of the old breed," agrees Brock.

In the background, from behind the River Inn, I can hear the Big Sur River, gurgling out its ancient and timeless rhythms.

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