Kastom dancing is a big deal here but not practiced all that frequently. I was very glad that, just before leaving site, I managed to join in one. It did, naturally, happen in a very typically Vanuatu way.
We were hanging out at home one weekend and noticed that there was more of a gathering of guys up at the Nakamal than usual. We hadn’t heard of any events going on but it’s not unusual for that to be the case so I wandered up to see what was going on. They informed me that there was kastom dance practice in the next village up and I should go join in. So I did.
Kastom dance here involves getting in lines and following the person ahead of you with a lot of stomping and chanting in call and response. Each dance has some number of youngfala who “lead” the dance. Joining in the pack was not terribly difficult as I could follow what everyone else was doing. There was some tempo to get down and the responses to try and learn but I mostly got to be entertained by the old men pushing the leading youngfala into their correct places. We spent a few hours that day going through each dance twice then drank kava (of course.) The following week we had dance practice again with the dance the following week.
The dance was to celebrate the kids’ first communion. They don’t have any problem mixing belief systems here. After the church service in the morning, the various communities came together at their respective Nakamals to share lunch and get prepared for the dance. Vanmelang was the last community to dance so we got to watch some of the other groups before we had to get “dressed.” I have not managed to have the stories really explained to me but there is generally a skit that goes on around the dance while it is in progress. They cross-dress, paint themselves with mud, put on spandex, wear masks, and generally act crazy. It’s hilarious, even if (and maybe because) I don’t really understand what is going on and always fun to watch.
Eventually it was time to go get ready for our dancing. The men went first and the women were to wrap everything up. We had been acquiring the small red mats to bring back with us anyway. The other men had told me that I could just use a calico (cloth) but I wanted to do it proper. Turns out, I was the only one. I showed up with my red mat and every single guy was using red cloth. Ah well, just means I got told I win for doing more kastom than they did. I did not manage to find someone from whom I could borrow or buy the shells they wear around their ankles but I did get painted and handed a stick to carry.
Once everyone was ready we lined up and made our way to the nasara (Dancing area. In this case, right next to the church.) When changing the group that’s dancing, there is always an overlap. The next group will come in while the previous one is about halfway through their second to last dance. The dancing will continue staggered so that the previous group leaves halfway through the new group’s second dance. We performed out dances and then left for the Vanmelang women to do ours. A number of the other young men joined the women and so did I. I was dancing for over two hours and it was a lot of fun. The sun was setting during the womens’ dance and it was fantastic to watch from inside the dance.
Everyone thought it was HILAROUS that I was joining in and even better that I was actually wearing the red mat. They also found it pretty entertaining that I was joining in the call and response. Any time I looked out of the dance and caught the eye of one of my students, they busted out laughing. For the next couple of days, any time I went into the office one of the other teachers would give one of the calls for me to respond to. I really enjoyed having this opportunity on one of my last weekends on the island.