Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dancing From The Heart: Movement, Gender, And Cook Islands Globalization.

By Kalissa Alexeyeff.

Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, May 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8248-3244-5, $55.00. 206 pages.

Review by Matthew J. Forss, Goddard College, Vermont

Kalissa Alexeyeff's study of expressive culture in the Cook Islands of the South Pacific highlights the various interrelated roles of sexuality, gender, religion, politics, and economics. For the most part, Alexeyeff's fieldwork was aided by an Aitutaki woman named Mamia, for which the prologue was dedicated. Mamia died from breast cancer in 2002, but not before passing along Cook Island dance traditions to Alexeyeff, while also supplying her with arranged interviews with dancers, and a place to live throughout the fieldwork period. Most of the research was conducted at the administrative and economic capital of the islands in Rarotonga from 1996-1998. The introduction provides an overview of anthropology, dance, and expressive culture, while incorporating Alexeyeff's summarization of dance by exploring "song texts and the themes they raise…analysis of dance choreography and music compositions given by their creators and talk that surrounds dance--the evaluations of dance performances and of dancers, and the gossip, commentary, and other verbal narratives that dance produces" (13).

The notion behind the title of "dancing from the heart" expresses the Cook Island "spirit" of happiness coming from the soul. Alexeyeff's interviews with numerous Cook Islanders found that motivations for dancing were clearly for happiness or enjoyment. In simple terms, dancers that were happy were truly “dancing from the heart.” Furthermore, Alexeyeff goes beyond simple, direct dance observation and notes dance expression may be an “extralinguistic” medium for grief, sadness, and other forms of communication not normally served with verbal responses. These dance forms and expressions of culture are influenced by the global-local web of social mobility, modernity, femininity, and politics.

Chapter one follows the religious, social, and political developments of expressive culture practices beginning with the London Missionary Society's involvement from 1823-1888, and the first European missionary, Charles Pittman, to settle on Rarotonga in 1827. The Cook Islands were part of the New Zealand colony from 1901-1965, which impacted expressive culture as a gradual changeover to Europeanization took place. Alexeyeff provides an interview with Jane Tararo and her dealings with dance and the impact of colonization, mobility, and femininity. Additionally, issues of tourism, culture, and revivalism from the 1970's-1998 was closely linked with the establishment of the Ministry of Cultural Development that attempted to "preserve…enhance the Cook Islands Cultural Heritage in order to uphold tradition…enrich cultural art forms…[and] maintain the unique cultural identity of the people of the Cook Islands" (54). Alexeyeff focuses on historical records with personal interviews and ethnographic research to create a more than adequate volume that traces the early to modern steps of expressive culture in the Cook Islands. Chapter two primarily focuses on the tourism industry in contemporary settings. The problem with tourism and dance is dependent on the observer and the performer, as native Cook Islanders want to maintain cultural identity without invalidating traditions. The older population is more likely to view tourism as a negative change for contemporary dance culture, while the younger generation views it as re-innovation. Chapter three investigates the relationship between femininity through dance and the Miss Cook Islands beauty pageant. This study analyzes the behavior of women with regards to morality, social obligations, and public performances. Throughout the book, Alexeyeff inserts poignant observations and critiques of comparable research, including alternatives to, and current limitations within, the data. The boundaries of normative genders and dance performance are contested with the analysis of a 1998 Drag Queen competition. The interrelated roles of men and women cross-dressing seem to be secondary in importance over "familial status and community maintenance" (114). Chapter five discusses the nightclub culture and musical activities in village centers. The nightclub etiquette of barmanning involves one person that dispenses small amounts of alcohol in a single cup and passes it around to a group of people. The practice of “outing,” or “going out,” which is the more familiar term for Westerners, mixes the same elements of drinking, dancing, and music familiar to Western audiences. Dancing From The Heart is as much about dancing as it is about social customs, order, and identity. The final chapter provides directions for the future outlook of Cook Islands dance activities and other expressive forms of culture. Dance is a medium with a variety of historic, political, religious, cultural, and gendered influences that have, and continue to shape its existence. At times, Dancing From The Heart reads like a diary of an ethnographer, which allows readers to learn about an understudied topic of dance culture in a very localized geographic area. The text does include a few Cook Islands Maori (Rarotongan) words, but they are used sparingly and defined effectively. It should be noted that complicated dance notation, otherwise known as “Labanotation,” is not used. Rather, the ethnographic and anthropological components related to dance and other expressive displays of performance are the primary themes of Dancing From The Heart. Lastly, the epilogue is an ode to Mamia's guidance and involvement throughout the text.

An appendix provides additional information on drum dances, action songs, chants and commemorative songs. Chapter notes, a glossary, extensive bibliography, and an index are included to help aid the reader in finding additional resources on the topic of Cook Island expressive culture. Overall, the Cook Islands have received much less “global” attention than other areas in the South Pacific, unlike Tahiti, Fiji, and Samoa. A smattering of black-and-white photographs, drawings, and maps provide additional clarifications accompanied with the text. All in all, this is an invaluable reference for undergraduate and graduate students interested in South Pacific cultural studies. However, anyone interested in learning about expressive culture and its affiliated components (i.e. gender, politics, sexuality, religion, etc.) should find Dancing From The Heart to be an informative and pleasurable read.

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