A year among the Maoris: study of their arts and customs
Chapter V — The Dance in Polynesia
The Dance in Polynesia
Although restrained, particularly when within the precincts of a missionary settlement, the dance has not been taken from the Polynesians, for it had become too much a part of their lives. In it they had found the natural expression of their emotions. The dance in its highest and truest form was the handmaiden of religion, and the noblest emotions could be physically interpreted. In the old days, when its traditions were well guarded, it was a dramatic art constantly rehearsed under a trained instructor. True, there were recreational dances, in which the events of the day were portrayed in gesture, but the real dance was taken seriously, studiously developed, with perfection as its ultimate aim.
In teaching the dance, with its appropriate gestures and postures, the practice was to recite the poem or story first of all, and the leader of each set of dancers was then responsible for its interpretation in rhythm, and in perfect unison as well. Leaders always took up their positions in the centre of the line of dancers. Although the men and women were in separate formations, frequently a woman led in a man's dance, or a man led in a woman's dance. A great amount of time and rehearsal is required to ensure unity of action, posture, and rhythm. In those dances constantly being given at present in almost any native village the lack of organisation is only too apparent. The dance is still an outlet for emotions, but it is only at some tribal celebration or ceremony for which there has been considerable rehearsing that one sees a well-trained dancing corps. Among the village groups, girls and youths may be met who dance beautifully, but as groups there is seldom that unity which was attained when dancing was studied as an exquisite page 66art, a great emotional, dramatic, and religious expression of racial idealism.
Dancers were formerly divided into two classes—the younger class and the elder, or the more experienced. Whenever I have seen the two sets performing, the elder has had precedence, immediately followed by the debutantes. These latter, however, lack that perfect unison which comes only with much practice, and is so beautiful when seen in a long line of dancers. Even where the natives have come most in contact with Europeans and lost nearly all their national characteristics, and where native customs are concealed, the dance is still indulged in openly and joyously. When a boat arrives at a port with natives from some other island, a competitive dance on the deck of the vessel or on the beach is generally arranged. Since the musical accompaniment is merely a matter of rhythm it is easily improvised. Frequently I have seen a grass mat taken from the ground and rolled. The performer then seated himself beside it, and with a stick in each hand beat such time as was suitable for the dance. In fact, the old-time drum is seldom seen now.
On another occasion I saw a taupou with her court of maidens perform one evening in the house of a high chief. These houses are elliptical in form, open on all sides, with a splendidly constructed domed ceiling, supported all round by pillars made from smoothed tree trunks. On all sides are blinds made from banana leaves, which can be raised or lowered as necessitated by rain or wind or prying neighbours. The floor was of small volcanic stones covered with soft and pliable reed mats coarsely woven. Some twenty dancers filed in and seated themselves on a long mat on the floor, leaving a place in the centre of the row for the taupou, whose duty it is, as official hostess, to arrange all dances given in welcoming a visiting chief or a distinguished foreigner. The seating of the host and his guests, each at his special pillar, is a delicate social arrangement. Inside a house there is only one line of dancers, but in a community dance on the village green there may be two or several lines.
Some of the dancers wore grass skirts, and garlands of flowers about the head and neck. Others wore the page 68more scanty skirt of stripped and dyed pandamus leaves, which do not hang as straight as the grass skirts, nor divide as evenly in the movement of the dance. Their bodies were well rubbed with sweet-scented cocoa-nut oil, giving the skin a texture as of fine satin or smooth bronze. The light travelled over them without a break as they emerged from the shadows, for there was little illumination beyond the beautiful moonlight. Behind the dancers sat the singers and the drummers, who for this event were really hand-clappers. Out on the green beyond the house sat the folk of less consequence, and those, too, assisted in the time-keeping by the clapping of hands or the beating of rolled mats.
First came a seated performance, and then a less formal standing dance. This, again, was followed by one by the taupou alone, or with only a few of her court, and then formality was dispensed with. The dancing blood was up, and must wear itself out. More than any other of the South Sea Islanders, the Samoans have retained the dance as a national institution. They have been less restricted in its performance, and to this has been attributed the preservation of their gaiety of temperament, and their pronounced happiness and well-being, for, besides its æsthetic value, the dance serves as exercise in a climate where few other forms of exercise are indulged in.
Among the finest tribal dances it has been my pleasure to see was one given at a village on the Rewa River, Vitu Levu, an island of the Fijian group. The neighbouring tribes were invited guests, and a feast was served which would have done justice to any modern caterer. This was followed by a dance given by the receiving tribe. First the women danced. This was followed by a similar dance by the maidens. On this occasion, contrary to custom, the men did page 70not dance. It was during the time of the Great War in Europe, and the men, instead of spending money and time in preparation for a tribal dance, contributed towards the purchase of an aeroplane to be presented to the British as a gift from the Fijians. Both women and maidens were garbed in tapa, not scantily draped, as were the Samoans, but yards and yards were wound about the body in huge grotesque folds. There were scarf-like pieces for the shoulders, and great lengths to wind about the waist. Some pieces of the tapa were unpainted, other pieces were decorated with large geometric patterns, resulting in a most bizarre appearance. After the women had given their dance, they made place for the maidens and retired to disrobe. The lengths of tapa were neatly folded, and later presented to the departing guests. As I was merely a white guest I did not expect consideration, but when I was about to depart next day a complete dancing outfit was sent out to the boat for me. Besides the feast and the dancing outfit, each guest was presented with a grass mat. These were carried in procession by a party of girls, each girl bearing a five-foot roll. The mats were edged with a fringe of brightly coloured worsteds, which replaces the feathers of the olden days, and this added a brilliant touch of colour. Truly they were royal hosts!
As in the other Polynesian arts, the Maoris reached a high state of perfection in the dance. When in the Thermal District in New Zealand, I was invited to attend a dance given by a group of Maori women to celebrate the return of a victorious hockey team. There had been several earthquakes during the earlier hours of the day, and the lowering clouds had held down the sulphur fumes that issue from the many crevasses in these parts. I feared that this might serve as a pall on the spirits as well as on the landscape. As the evening approached, it seemed to be in sympathy with the day it followed, each hour of which had been laden with an uncertain fear, and I hardly expected to be called for to be taken to the dance. I sincerely think that, had it been for any other event, the appointment would not have been kept, but at the stated time my Maori friends called for me, not on foot as I had expected, but in a motor-car owned by one of the party. It was a seven-seater touring car, and I was courteously given a seat, but several other passengers were not so fortunate. The mood of my companions was evoked rather by what was coming than by what page 72had passed. At last I could trace the kinship in temperament of my Maori friends with their Polynesian cousins of the tropical seas. Here was the same joyous spirit awakened by the same conditions. The dance! The dance! Oh, the joy of self-expression! An expression, not of the voice alone, but also with the exquisitely sensitive muscles all responding to a great harmony of self with Nature.
Here, too, the dance is not only a recreation. It is a record of current events in rhythmic pantomime. It is the recital of old poems in posture. It is the representation of the drama of their race. Having had, as elsewhere throughout Polynesia, a religious origin, these devotional beginnings later assumed, as is often the case, a sensual character. Indeed, it often developed into an orgy of sensualism. That is but one side of the truth, and the rank side. There are many facets to this jewel of poetic posture, and when I saw the real thing it seemed to me but a scar, a scratch on the surface—such a scar as is to be found on the art of the dance in all of the large American and European cities.
I found in the dance of the Maoris, as in their other arts, a well-defined constructive scheme. The first movement was the extension of the arms forward to mark space from the rank in front. Then, by extending the arms sideways, the space was measured from the person at either side. There followed a slight movement of the feet and hands to set the rhythm, and the real dance began, whether it was for the sole joy of rhythmic movement, or the expression of the passions, or the development of a dramatic idea.page break page 73
The one we came to see was of the last-mentioned type, a poi dance, one of their favourites, the famous canoe dance, and was a marvel of interpretive work. It was performed by about forty girls, sometimes all standing, sometimes all seated, then half the number standing, the others seated. They portrayed the hopes, the fears, the aspirations, and the achievements of the spirit of all worthy canoes, for one was made to feel that all canoes had a spirit, and that these girls were the manifestation of it. They launched the canoe in tranquil waters and quietly paddled away. A storm arose, and the frail craft was buffeted by the heavy seas, and tossed about and finally capsized. It was righted again and triumphantly rode the waves. The dance became quieter. The girls who were seated represented the rowers, and they swayed in time, while their arms gracefully imitated the rhythmic stroke of the paddle. Those standing behind them moved as if to counteract the rising and the falling of the waves, which appeared gradually to subside. The sound made by the stripped flax dancing skirt was like the lash of the water against the bows of the canoe, and the striking of the poi-balls against one another suggested the sound of the paddle stroke. The dance ended by the beaching of the canoe. It had been taken seriously, but, once over, the girls gave themselves over to merriment, and crowded about me to know how I liked it. My enthusiasm pleased as well as surprised some of them, particularly those who had been making a study of European dances from the moving-picture screen. Many of our modern dances are said to have been adapted from those page 74of the island races. If this is so, the adapters must have gone out of their way to find something to appeal to the senses of our civilised people. Nowhere have I seen more beautiful postures, more graceful movements, than amongst the dancers of these South Sea Islands.
I was presented with a pair of poi-balls, which are about the size of a duck's egg. Each ball has a flax cord attached to it about five inches long. As far as I could make out from my companions, they were made from the leaves of the raupo, which enclosed some of the down from its flowering stalks. Afterwards I learned that in former times the poi-balls were made by stuffing a fabric bag with raupo pappus. The bags were woven in different colours with geometric designs. On account of dryness, or some similar cause, a rattling sound results from twirling them in the hands, but to obtain this result needs some skill, for I tried quite unsuccessfully to reproduce the sound. One of the girls, amused at my efforts, said she could do it with a knotted handkerchief. This was doubted by one of her companions, so I offered my handkerchief (bearing my initials) to the girl if she did it successfully. She won the prize. The sound was not the same as that obtained with the poi, but it resembled it, and was certainly a most unusual one to be produced by the twirling of a handkerchief.
Later I met a young man who had been a leader in some ceremonial hakas, and he said he would arrange page 76one for me. My experience had taught me not to rely on promises, but to take every opportunity that came along, so I asked him if he would show me just how he would train his men. My host stripped and dressed up for the occasion, but instead of donning a Maori kilt, he preferred to adorn himself, as does his more civilised brother, with an imported garment, a dancing kilt from the Tongan Islands, shorter, but somewhat more ornate, than that of his own people.
The Maori dancing skirt lends itself to the movement of the dance more successfully than those of the other Polynesian Islands. It is made of stripped flax, which at intervals has been scraped to the fibre. It is dried, so that there are alternate stiff and soft textures, which in the movement of the dance permits of great flexibility, and a joyous crackling sound is created by the motion of the stiff portion of the skirt. Like all South Sea Island dancing skirts, its fringe-like strips separate with the movement of the body, revealing limbs unusually well rounded. These skirts hang from the waist to slightly above the knees. The upper portion of the body is always uncovered, although necklaces of shells or garlands of flowers are hung about the neck and adorn the head. The hands of the women in most of the islands are unusually beautiful, sometimes exquisitely so, but I did not find this to be the case amongst the Maoris. Conversely, whilst the feet of the people of the tropical isles were rather unshapely and unattractive, those of the Maoris were not so. Nowhere amongst the island folk have I observed well-formed feet. As a rule I have found them unattractive.page break page 77
Though the old mode of living is passing away, old arts are neglected, and old ceremonies are replaced by those but little understood, the dance amongst the Maoris still remains. There may not be the actual participation in its more perfect and ceremonial form, but always there is a passion for it, and a continual giving way to its movements while humming over old songs. Children hardly able to walk know some of the haka postures. Thus happily we find the dance to a limited extent is still the medium of national as well as personal expression. In it the communal life still finds its recreation. To the artist accustomed to the study of the nude figure, in quest of beauty of movement and form, these dances are but one of the charming as well as beautiful things sought and found amongst the lovable peoples of the South Seas.