Dancing Tropical Life: ‘Local Dance’ in Kiribati
The Pacific island republic of Kiribati is the only country that spans both the Equator, and the 180th meridian that nominally separates the ‘East’ and ‘West.’ As one of the most remote and least visited nations in the world, life and culture in Kiribati remain very much an expression of the tropical environment: cultural and economic globalization is evident, but less prominent than in many other places. This is particularly acute in te mwaie ni Kiribati, which is translated into English by I-Kiribati (Kiribati people) as ‘local dance,’ and in this paper, I ask what this means for understanding how the material conditions of tropical life are made manifest in performance.
Those material conditions are, of course, varied. Almost everything Kiribati dancers wear
(pandanus mat skirts, garlands, shells, belts of human hair, coconut oil) comes from the island, and the songs and choreography speak of the history, myths and geography of the island. The Kiribati conception of the body is intimately tied to the topography of land and sea. But material conditions are historical and social conditions, and those, too, are present in the dance. Kiribati was amongst those Pacific islands that were integral to the emergence of the colonial discourse of tropicality in the 18 th and 19 th centuries. That history has imprinted itself on the dance, as do the lived experiences of the dancers, who face economic hardship in a beautiful but demanding environment. Lastly, as the low-lying atolls of Kiribati are increasingly threatened by rising sea levels and the prospect of climate migration looms for future generations, the role of ‘local dance’ in preserving and transmitting the local stands to become all the more significant.
In this paper, then, I offer a detailed study in what tropical life means for those who express it in performance. There is much that is specific to Kiribati in the forms this takes. But the contours and contexts of te mwaie ni Kiribati promise to establish some of the basic considerations that animate tropical performances around the globe.