(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
“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.