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No. 22 (April 1958)
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Dance of Papuans in the Rabaul area of New Britain. The masked figures performing to the beat of drums are locally known as ‘duk-duks’. The occasion celebrated here is the opening of a new village co-operative shop which will buy copra from its members and supply goods to the village. (Australian Official Photograph by W. Brindle)



What is New Guinea dancing like? If you can imagine crowds of dancers swirling and turning in undulating masses; their bodies painted red, yellow and black like an ultra modern abstract painting; from shoulders and arm bands are draped long golden leaves mixed with those of the purple and red croteus plant, yellow grasses fringe the waist, two palm fronds spurt upward from the small of the back like a fountain above the Mahl loin cloth of soft dark bark, the Bird of Paradise head-dresses float in such splendour and delicacy as to leave you breathless, then add to this spectacle the beating of drums, the weirdly shouted songs in impelling rhythms and you have the atmosphere of a New Guinea sing-sing.

In New Guinea, the dancing is most frequently a communal event with nearly everyone participating. There were occasions when a single dancer showed a talent for inventive movement, but it seems less usual than among the Australian aborigines. Sometimes a whole village will mass in a great oval, circling round and round the village square, bodies swaying forward and back like the lapping tide of a calm sea. Frequently a dozen or so of the men will form a circle for the stylised pig-hunt dance called “Tainpul”. A man takes

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his place in the centre to enact the part of the wild boar. Every dancer carries his “kundu” hand drum. It is shaped like an hour-glass of wood with one end covered with pigskin or lizard, the other end is open. All are singing as they beat their drums and dance in a stylised hopping on both feet. The feet are kept flat on the ground and wide apart. The circling men advance toward the “boar” and retreat just as smoothly when he twists and turns in avoidance of their imaginary arrows.

Once in a while there are great gatherings of many villages. They create an unparalleled cacaphony as each group works in its own circle monotoning or shouting the special songs and chants it owns either from trading or from ancestral traditions. The most important traders seem to be a group of island people, the Seassi, who compose songs and create dances which they trade for miles up and down the northern New Guinea shores. In return they receive payment of yams, sago, kau kau and other necessities. The dance steps frequently resemble the South American “Samba”, the “Son” and others that have popular equivalents in European ballroom dancing. The habit of chewing betel-nut among coastal New Guinea peoples may have some bearing on the mesmeric almost trance-like quality of their dancing. Betel nut induces a kind of intoxication which when combined with the effect of monotonous rhythm can dull the conscious mind and bring about a kind of elemental frenzy. But the normal dance forms are of a smooth beauty that is a great pleasure to not only the participants, but also to those who watch.

The cruel hazing ceremonies for boys when they reach the age of puberty, were formerly widespread and are still continuing in territory that has not as yet been brought under government control. Some of these include the Tambaran ceremonies which seem to be based on black magic and the willing of death.

In the Tambaran ceremonies of the coastal peoples, there were dancers with great hunting bows and arrows in place. They came rushing out of the bush toward the large Tambaran house as if to frighten away the Tambaran spirits. The spirits are actually two old men in great masks painted in grotesque colours and patterns. These spirits were heralded by a number of flute players. The musicians, always facing the spirit men, walked backward in an odd dance step, dipping every now and then as low to the earth as their long bamboo flutes would allow. Other men pranced about circling the group as it slowly proceeded from the edge of the jungle to the Tambaran houses. This great building with the sacred pig bones—as well as human ones suspended from its sharp-angled front gable, is for men only. Cannibalism has not yet been entirely stamped out in New Guinea

Certain tribes wear enormous head dresses shaped like the spade on playing cards and gorgeously decorated. Even a small breeze makes them so unwieldy that they must have ropes attached so the dancers can hold them on. Of course, the dance steps are necessarily less exciting in proportion to the size and weight of the head gear. Yet small intricate footwork has been developed to make up for less movement of the head and torso.

Beth Dean, the well-known Australian folk dancer and anthropologist, wrote in our last issue about the dances of the Australian aborigines. This time she deals with dances of New Guinea and of the Maori people.

In the 100 mile long Wahgi valley, 5,000 feet up in the highlands the Wari Kanana is a dance by the warriors. Sometimes hundreds of them, forming a rectangle will chant “kwi ro randei ndei” for an hour or more in a loud sing song voice. They do a jog-trot kind of step, in place, turning the whole body from side to side as they face this way and that. Then the whole group moves forward in a great circular path still shouting out as loudly as their powerful lungs can manage while the “kundu” is beaten at odd intervals. This produces a rough and tumble sound that appears to have no definite beat. The beat of rhythm is felt only by the successive intervals of some song, then drumming, then song again.

The highland men are sometimes six feet or more in height. Their beautifully built bodies seem like columns of strength from the top of which issues living fire—so glorious are the red and gold Bird of Paradise plumes on their heads. The sight of the tall dancers winding up the slippery narrow trails from the deep valleys as they come in for the sing sing—is almost unbelievable. The heavy green of rain forests contrasting with the red and gold halo of the men's delicate plumage, later the massing together midst the roar of shouting, the tinkling silvery sound of the gleaming pearl shells at their waists—all this grooves itself deep in memory. Long afterwards one's pulse quickens when this picture comes again to exhilarate the mind.


The first impact of Maori dance is thrilling excitement as well as beguiling beauty. As seen in concert form the first welcome can be utter calm and quiet strength contained in the potency of beat through such a chant as “Utaina”. Then there comes the delightful lulling of the senses in the girls' pois and the action songs which leave one utterly charmed. Finally, for one who has never before experienced the soul stirring depth of emotion which is a haka, the sudden shattering of the quietude that reigned at its beginning is like the unexpected explosion of a dam as the pressure behind it is unleached in a thunderous roaring.

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Maori dance communicates its emotions through such a stylised technique that the technique becomes a living frame of high tradition. Performances of true Maori dance and ancient chants are living history.

Even when spectators have no previous background knowledge, the rhythms and mental intent of Maori lore have tremendous impact. But, how much greater the thrill when one realises, after even a little study, how deep in the past this expression of a people is rooted. How much greater still must be the feelings aroused if one's own ancestry is Maori. Here is a culture that is as valuable as any cherished museum piece but it can and does still have a vital place in the present. How cataclysmic the effect of a haka can be in today's world and how potent its quality can be in reaching out to the future, was proven during World War II. The pakeha soldiers have attested to the hair-raising effect of a haka heard in the heat of battle, but surely to the Maori, the call becomes himself and all his forebears finding relief from pent-up emotions in the release of physical and mental energy of volcanic proportions through sound and movement. This is “basic dance” in its true sense and it is supremely Maori.

High pride of achievement through courage against terrific odds, appears as one of the strongest bases of Maori culture. May this spirit which the elders and great leaders of the Maori people have continually nurtured—and since time immemorial it has been an outstanding quality of Polynesian pioneering—may it keep alive the arts of the past. This is not easy in the face of the many distractions of European modes of life. There is a subtle undermining process that must be met with real will power and all the self discipline of the historic Maori heroes, because it is easier to dissipate time listening to cheap radio sessions and seeing third rate movie fare, for example, than to memorize an ancient chant with its tricky rhythms. Today's leaders are working to instill a desire in the new generations to continue going forward in artistic achievement that is truly Maori. There is high value in creating a song, a dance, a poem. The crying out for expression of that which is within one's own deepest thoughts, needs a suitable mould that will reveal it at its best. The struggle to reach deep within one's own culture and bring forth a work of art is worth the effort not only for the result itself, but also for the great personal joy of succeeding in putting an ideal, an abstract thought, into a mould at all. To copy another's way—however much fun jazz, etc. may be—is always just a copy and can never have the value of an original contribution.

To see the glories of the old chants on the marae is to feel the pulse of the Maori spirit and to know its power. Contact with the very real force of this kind of an experience can engender enthusiasm that will create new works of Maori art to triumph over both city environment and human lethargy.

The various Maori clubs throughout New Zealand are working hard to consciously preserve in these days, the arts which in the beginning arose spontaneously from life surounding the marae of those other days. This work is of immeasureable value. One can fervently hope that memberships will continue to grow so that the work will bear much fruit. The author is personally extremely grateful that there is a club—the Ngati Poneke at Wellington, because it was there, some years ago, that she first saw Maori dance.

In summary, it is apparent that each of the three races, whether aboriginal, New Guinea or Maori enjoys a “basic” dance expression and that the dancing itself is so individual in style as to be a kind of trade mark for the characteristics of its people. Dance can be a kind of skeleton key that unlocks many doors toward an understanding of a people. Careful study in ethnic dance can uncover clues, otherwise partly hidden, to the underlying psychology of a given group.

In their natural environment, the aborigines are full of gentle qualities which are given firmness and character through ancient laws of self discipline. The people are imbued with a deep, religious kind of fervour in regard to their land and their culture heroes. Their dance is contemplative or exciting, in turn, as it depicts the vast wanderings of the creative ancestral beings of aboriginal belief.

Certain of the dances in New Guinea have the thrusting vitality of awesome imagination reflecting the closeness of the people to a deep-seated psychic fear. This fear and the hatreds arising out of it arises out of not only a long past but also a very present contemporary history of killing, warfare and vendettas. This aspect of New Guinea dance is in direct contrast to those dances which reflect the opulent beauty of mountain vistas and curving coastlines. New Guinea dance is like its environment, rich in outward beauty with the sudden hidden terrors of the jungle ever present.

Maori dance is full of the strength that comes from pride in not only the courage but also the beauty of ancestral achievement both artistically and in mundane things as well.

The action songs may be graphic stories of the heroism of the great canoes, or they may be all poetry and romance—peerless as love songs. The Maoris, though noted for their prowess in war yet developed a harmonious pattern of life. In it, war and cultural refinements were the equal pillars in a “Temple of Life” which had harmony of purpose in overall mental attitudes as its base. Chivalry, warm hospitality, romantic ideals and a trace of the magic of Karakia, as well as indomitable courage are all mirrored in Maori dance.

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Above: Maori women at Jerusalem, Wanganui River, do the traditional Aotea Poi dance. (Photograph: Charles Hale)

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Below: A ‘sing-sing’ at Nondugl, Central Highlands of New Guinea. Bira of Paradise plumes figure largely in their ceremonial dress. They also paint their faces and bodies with vivid natural pigments. Until comparatively recently these people had never seen a European. (Australian Official Photograph by Gadsby)