Institutt for sosialantropologi

Dance encounters. Exploring Cook Islands identity through staged performances.


Av Camilla Aasmundsen Jensen

Veileder: Professor Edvard Hviding

This is an anthropological study of contemporary Cook Islands dance, more specifically in the form of public performances on the capital island of Rarotonga. I conducted fieldwork on Rarotonga from February to August 2011. The analysis is based on a methodological approach of participant observation, fixed interviews, conversations and active participation amongst two professional dance troups as well as with a district dance team during the National Constitution Celebration, Te Maeva Nui. The thesis is an analysis of ways in which Cook Islanders construct and mediate collective identities around dance and how these identities are being displayed through dance performances. I treat dance as a symbolic practice by which groups represent their identities in more or less self-consciously constructed ways.

Since 1965, at which point the Cook Islands became self-governing in free association with New Zealand, dance has developed into a national symbol. However, as my analysis show, dance is also a symbol of the strong island identities that the people of the Cook Islands hold. This aspect became especially prominent in the weeks leading up to, as well as during, Te Maeva Nui. Once a year, in mid-July, people from the twelve inhabited islands of the Cook Islands are brought to Rarotonga on the expense of the government, to compete against each other as island teams, and on Rarotonga as district teams. This in turn creates a unique situation where people from the dispersed islands are brought together and live side by side in a small area in the main town on Rarotonga. When they perform on the national stage, teams display dance and song performances that have been rehearsed for several months ahead.

I explore Te Maeva Nui from a number of angels, seeking to show the complexity that lies within dance as an identity symbol.  I treat Te Maeva Nui as a site of active nation making, where people seek to express their island and district identities in front of their fellow nationals as well as government representatives. In this sense the festival presents a context where dance as a national symbol is being negotiated and a place where assertions of collective identities are made. I argue that the teams express island identities with fierce pride by overemphasising differences expressed in dance. I position their claims of different island identities in relation to larges social changes and especially the global flow that is very prominent on Rarotonga. On the main island, where the global flow is experiences through large amounts of tourists entering the shore every day, professional dance troupes perform dances as entertainment in attempts to displaying the rich cultural heritage of the Cook Islands. These dance troups display a variety of the more localized dance styles, but the dancers do not represent their islands when they perform for tourists. Rather, dancers from many islands are members of these dance troups where they learn a number of so called ‘traditional’ dances from the various islands. In my thesis I compare these two dance contexts because they present different ways in which dance is being used to promote and display identity.