The Welcoming Dance

(In June 2003, journalists Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair uprooted themselves from Los Angeles and moved to the South Pacific. Their first stop is Rarotonga. They brought their two young daughters with them.)

Once a week the island holds a dance lesson, and it’s free. We enter the National Auditorium, which reminds me of a high-school sports arena, and I’m surprised by all the hubbub. I thought this was going to be a small class for kids, but it seems like half of the island — males and females of all ages — is packed in this place.

Class has already started, and the floor is swarming with gyrating students. Other people are hanging out in the bleachers — snacking, watching the dancers, or nursing their babies. A couple of roosters chase each other in and out of the exit door.

Everyone but us is wearing island clothes. For girls this means a sarong tied low around the hips and a bikini bra or skimpy top that rides above the belly button. In my white cargo pants and cotton T-shirt, I feel like the tourist that I am.

“Go on, Sarina,” I say, shoving her towards a little girl who’s wearing a grass skirt and coconut shell bra.

But Sarina spots a couple of local girls she met a few days ago who are running around the periphery of the action, oblivious to the class.

“Lily! Isabella!” Sarina screams, and then takes off to join her friends. They scramble up the bleachers, hopping from bench to bench. The girls’ grandmother is the owner of a popular downtown café, and the other day she told me, “In Rarotonga, kids are free.” I remember this and refrain from asking Sarina to join the class.

From the top of the bleachers the dance lesson looks more organized. People are lined up in rows, tallest in the back, young children in the front. Guys are on one side of the room, gals on the other.

A man wearing a light blue shirt and a woven grass crown is pounding on a barrel-shaped drum. A barefoot teenager with black hair that hangs down to her tailbone leads the girls. Her hips knock back and forth to the drumbeat, while her arms float up to her sides.

“What’s that guy doing?” Mark asks. He’s turned around, looking out the window. I peer through the wooden slats and notice a teepee high up in the mountain.

“No, down there,” Mark says, pointing towards an old building with a high thatched roof.

In the courtyard of the building is a man twirling a thick blue rod, squatting, and then gracefully standing up tall, arching his back, and kicking one leg out in front of him. It looks like he’s practicing some kind of sport or martial art, but with all the thick greenery growing in his yard he keeps disappearing from us.

I turn back towards the dancers, and notice Sarina shaking her hips in the front row with her two friends. I join the class, too, finding a spot in the back. A Maori choir starts singing and strumming ukuleles to the beat of the drums. Their voices are soft and childlike. A young woman dancing at my right smiles at me, and I ask her what the song is about.

“It’s a welcoming song, inviting visitors to participate in our culture.”

After weeks of being an outsider looking in, this is something I needed to hear.


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