The Change Dance

By

I don’t dance said the Polynesian technician, our Telecom link to what’s beyond Atiu. We’re in the middle of the Pacific, on a tiny island that started cell phone service only six months ago. He’s kirking his cell in his hand, opening it with a flick like Captain Kirk on Star Trek, weighing my surprise–a Cook Islander not dancing? How would he get girls? I asked.

I hunt wild pig, he says.

Atiu is one of the Cook Islands, a touch more traditional than the capital, Rarotonga where the pigs don’t roam, stay penned. When I visited the islands nearly forty years ago, everyone–from toddlers to grandmothers–danced. They danced to drumming on the table as well as to the radio, they danced on the beach and in line for the movies, they danced in the airport. It wasn’t just a floorshow. Dance chants preserved their history, a dance gesture could bring down the house with laughter, or ruin a family.

Maybe they will dance with their cellphones.

Two Mamas ride up on scooters to have their phones “topped.”  The “coconut wireless”–traditionally gossip, this tidbit from a schoolteacher–has it that kids now go hungry as a result of this topping off. That afternoon I meet the kids, six of them at recess, huddled around a phone showing a Japanese animation, the other thirty of their schoolmates batting a T-ball. Their English isn’t as good as it used to be. Will the phones improve their language skills? Or will it degenerate into a patois of thumb-emoticons and abbreviations? Will even fewer of them dance?

My host, Papa Paere, wears the only pareu I’ve seen on the island, the flowered hibiscus-printed garments that’s been traditional since the Chinese began selling yardage in the last century. Cross-legged on a chair, surrounded by slips of paper, he’s writing the Atiuian dictionary and has spent years on A. Fortunately, the Atiuan alphabet has far fewer letters that English. But his dictionary is not Atiuian-English, it’s only Atiuian. He could care less whether outsiders know what the Atiuans are thinking. But collecting the words is like catching water in your fingers, he says. It’s changing as fast as he can write it down, even with fewer than a thousand speakers. Atiuans fly off to Rarotonga and like that–he snaps his finger–they change their talk. All around him lies paper covered with his paper-saving tiny script.

Hillary Clinton may or may not be coming this week to Rarotonga to change our talk. She wants to woo the Cook Islanders into becoming a beachhead against the Chinese. Not since Queen Elizabeth’s arrival fifty years ago, has the island nation anticipated such a celebrity. It could be bigger than the rugby hero running naked along the waterfront a few years ago. Her bodyguards have arrived, languishing on the perfect Cook Island beaches, what has become over the years the New Zealand Caribbean. But the Chinese, she will discover, have already built the National Auditorium, a beautiful steel open-air structure primarily for dance competitions.

On Atiu I don’t turn down the frozen teriyaki wild pig that the schoolteacher brings me later that day. Are you the one shooting pigs at dawn? I ask. He tells me it was the bounty hunter from the capital who killed a record fifty-three myna birds today.  The mynas threaten a species of nearly extinct lorikeets. When Air Rarotonga flew them from Tahiti directly to Atiu for resettlement five years ago, all five hundred Atiuans turned out to celebrate, holding competitions for the best song composed, reviving old chants, making costumes, preparing a feast–and choreographing dances.

Although the island boasts that the endangered lorikeet can now be seen in flocks, the only bird I’ve spotted is the myna. At dawn the next day, I struggle awake to the sound of gunshots going on and on. If they’re aimed at pigs, they’re more wild than I imagine–it has to be mynas. So much shooting signals only one thing: that change cannot be stopped.

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Bio: Terese Svoboda's most recent book, Great American Desert, contains stories about climate from prehistoric times to the future. Her second novel, A Drink Called Paradise, traced the effects of a atomic poisoning in the Pacific. She also wrote the libretto for WET, an opera about water shortage that premiered at LA's RedCat Theater, and produced a nationally screened video, EPA POISONS EPA about a lawyer who becomes severely handicapped by pollution in EPA's national headquarters. In a starred review of Great American Desert, Kirkus writes: “[Svoboda's] enigmatic sentences, elliptical narratives, and percussive plots delve into the possibilities of form, genre, and plausible futures, but always with an eye on the vast subterranean psychologies of her all-too-real creations.” More from this author →