The Cook Islands may not be able to boast that they lead the world in many things – but when it comes to dancing they are top of the pile. Like the rest of Polynesia, the islands have an oral tradition with legends and learning passed down the generations through dances and songs rather than dusty old library books, and even now memorable events like cyclones prompt a new spate of routines.
Almost everyone here dances or sings and when the limbs can’t take the pace any more the dancers generally pick up an instrument, maybe a coconut shell ukulele or one of the intimidating array of slit drums that create a wall of sound Phil Spector would kill for. Add to that the close harmony singing, which entices even the most cynical atheists to church on a Sunday morning, and it is clear that the Cook Islands is a nation blessed with a vibrant musical pedigree.
For someone more used to traditional English dancing performed by men armed with bells, hankies and sticks, and where mass sing-a-longs tend to question footballers’ parentage, the contrast is stark.
Every August the country celebrates its independence with a weeklong dance and cultural competition in the National Auditorium, the biggest and baddest of the many dance competitions throughout the year. This is a furiously hard fought battle between the different troupes, up to 50 strong, from Rarotonga and the outer islands – all of whom have their own styles of dance. Debates about the judging are rehearsed for weeks afterwards in the letters pages of the local paper.
When the dancers really get going the women sway their hips with mind-boggling speed, while maintaining a disconcertingly saintly smile and performing precise hand movements to act out the story they are telling. It is difficult not to contemplate their spectacular gyrations with anything other than slack-jawed awe and wonderment. It is probably worth mentioning that the ubiquitous coconut bra is in fact a western invention – common sense does not dictate that if you chop an irregularly shaped nut in half it will make for a comfortable and convenient item of lingerie – although advances in modern sanding technology mean that troupes nowadays don them for at least some routines in their show.
Meanwhile the men, slightly crouched, do much the same with their hands while – and this is difficult to describe – sort of shaking their legs a bit like Elvis doing the Charleston and offering up whoops of delight.
To the untrained eye some of the moves may look fairly simple, but they ain’t. Not for the white man, ‘fresh off da boat’, as they say. Nowhere is this better illustrated than at the myriad of ‘Island Night’ shows put on around Rarotonga, where resorts battle to put on the best performance.
At these shows the tourists are at first dazzled by the drums and lithe dancers in traditional costume and then reduced to a quivering wreck by the realisation that some of them will be required on stage to give it a go. The victims are chosen and dragged on stage and given a brief resume of what is required of them. The women are told, in what could be the best analogy ever, to ‘make like a washing machine’. And they mean a washing machine on full spin – not the silk cycle. Meanwhile the men are shown how to adopt the semi-crouched position and move their legs to gain the desired effect. But when the drums kick in, whitey generally knocks his knees together like the mouth of a beached cod, or simply wiggles ineffectively.
Yet the professionals don’t gloat (publicly), instead they chuckle, cheer and congratulate the participants – after all that’s the Polynesian way.
After a woefully embarrassing performance in front of an almost exclusively local audience some time ago – which was made worse by the fact that my partner for my minute of shame was a local beauty who could have been the inspiration behind the tumble dryer – I decided to crack this dancing thing.
My first lesson came during a post-cricket drinking session on the beach. According to my coach – a former Cook Islands dancer of the year – the most important part is preparation. Unfortunately this consists of crouching, knees bent at 90 degrees, back straight against a wall for support for a good five minutes. After this you are ready. Bizarrely this turned out to be quite true, as my legs were now involuntarily shaking. Trying to stay upright while frantically twitching the hams was complicated enough – so I didn’t even attempt the hand motions, instead opting to sit down, take another draught on my beer, silently marvelling at the experts in action.
It’s not only at competitions and organised shows where the dancing is on display – Pacific rhythms can be found pumping out of the speakers at clubs and bars across the islands. This cultural mainstay even manages to hold its own against the global domination of hip-hop.
While the youth of Rarotonga consists of sullen posses of ‘thugged out homies’ doing ‘thugged out thangs’ (thus conforming to all relevant UN resolutions), as soon as the local beats come on, instead of skulking and nodding their heads underneath their hoodies and beanies, the ‘kids’ joyously swamp the dancefloor to ‘shake they ass’. Something they have been doing since they were tiny children. They may prefer Hilfiger and surf gear to the traditional garb but the fact remains that Cook Islanders just love to get down.