Papua New Guinea Blog 5: Fire Dance

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Jane Fajans is a professor of Anthropology at Cornell University. She
was invited to join the James Cameron expedition during their time in
Papua New Guinea and share her insights into the culture of the Baining
people. Jane conducted fieldwork with the Baining on the island of Papua
New Guinea, near the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.

On Tuesday, March 6, we drove up to Gaulim to make arrangements for the Baining Fire Dance. This is a traditional dance that is performed at night. The dancers wear big masks and dance around a big fire. From time to time one of the dancers will run into the fire and start kicking logs and embers and sending sparks flying across the area. The dancers are accompanied by a male chorus. The members of this chorus sing in a rapid staccato style and pound a piece of bamboo tubing on top of a large piece of wood. The music is very energetic and the dancers also move energetically–and sometimes frantically–around the dance ground. The shadows of the mask, the sparks of the fire, and the pounding music make this a very dramatic performance.

The village is about an hour from Kokopo, the capital of East New Britain. The road to the village goes up into the mountains and then about halfway down the backside of one mountain. The road is good until about 6 km (3.7 miles) before the village, and then turns into a very rutted track. On Tuesday, the road was dry so we could bump along it up to the edge of the village, but on Friday, when we went back for the actual dance, the road was all mud due to a recent rain.

Because we had called ahead and said we were coming, there were a number of people (men, women, and children) waiting for us in the village. Normally, everyone would be out in the gardens at this time of day. Having cell phones and cell phone coverage is a recent, and very welcome, change in this region. As I found out later, coverage is not available in other parts of the Baining territory.

On the way up to the village, we stopped at a small roadside stand to buy betel nut, the fruit of the areca palm that is widely chewed in Papua New Guinea (and elsewhere in the Pacific and Southeast Asia), and often combined with the fruit of a pepper plant and powdered lime. When mixed together, these three components turn bright red in the mouth and give a slight burst of energy, or buzz. Betel nut is used as a form of greeting among the Baining. Instead of a handshake, people exchange betel nut with one another, and if they have time, chew it together. People say that conversation goes better with betel nut (called “buai” in tok pisin, the local lingua franca). You should not swallow the betel nut, so people spit the red juice that collects in their mouths out on the ground. In many places in town there are signs forbidding the spitting of betel nut, but in the rural areas where the ground is dirt or grass, people just spit wherever they want. When you see people with very red mouths like bright lipstick, it is because of the betel nut.

We came up to the village and James and I (James was our driver) exchanged betel nut with the people in the picture below. The Australians with us did not understand this custom until they saw us do it. When I chewed betel nut with the residents of Gaulim, everyone laughed and the children ran around telling others. It is not common for non-Papua New Guineans to chew it.


villagers outside one house.  Photo by
Jane Fajans.

A film crew walked around this small village looking for
the best site for their lights and cameras. They asked where the fire would be,
where the dancers would enter, where the chorus would sing, and other related questions.
We were taken down a path outside the hamlet to a small house made of bush
materials where the masks are stored, and were shown where the dancers would
don their regalia and line up to dance into the plaza, where the fire and
chorus would be waiting. We learned there would be about fifteen or twenty
dancers, and that they had a small python in a bag, which one of the dancers
would carry onto the dance ground where the dance would take place. The role of
the python is small: It is held by a dancer on one end and a boy of about 10-14
years on the other end, sort of like a jump rope. We were shown the python, which was
small in their terms but still about 8 feet long.  After the dance they would probably eat the
python, but we did not witness that.

small house.jpg

Small house where the masks are stored.  You can just see one mask of white bark cloth
in the corner. Photo by Jane Fajans

While talking to the villagers, I mentioned one of the local
foods that I remembered as being in season around this time. It is called pitpit and is a starchy food that grows
on the stalk of a plant distantly related to sugar cane, although the food is
not sweet. They promised me a dish of pitpit when I came back on Friday, and
they indeed had it ready for me (us, as I shared it around) when we returned
later in the week.

We went back on Friday around 2 o’clock, and, as I mentioned
above, the road was muddy and we had to walk up to the village. Many of the
villagers helped us carry the equipment.


Some of the equipment we brought with us.  This quantity of “cargo” astounded the
locals. Photo by Jane Fajans

One of the big jobs for the film production was to set up a large light that floats
inside a helium balloon. We had gotten permission from the Baining to use this
light because we described it as being like a moon that would float over the
clearing. Usually, the fire is the only light at a fire dance, but it is very
hard to get photos or video footage by such a light. Mid-afternoon we started
to set up the balloon.


Ted filling the balloon light with helium.  Photo by Jane Fajans

There were some problems with the balloon because the
generator that was supposed to supply the electricity for the light broke down.
Since we were miles from a replacement, the crew managed to salvage the night
by using a smaller generator to shine a production light onto the surface of the
balloon. This solution in fact made the balloon look much like a moon, and
provided sufficient light.

Jim Cameron, his adviser Maria Wilhelm, and many others arrived in the
late afternoon and watched the final preparations.


Jim tasting some of the pitpit mumu which I had opened and
shared around.  Maria is taking pictures,
mostly of the children. Photo by Jane Fajans

Jim and the newcomers were taken down to see the mask house
and the beginnings of the preparations.



Around 6 p.m. the men and boys began carrying in huge
bundles of firewood for the fire and arranging boards and logs for the chorus
to sit on and pound their bamboo instruments against. The boys set it up and
started a small fire. The crew didn’t like where the fire was, nor did they
like where the set up for the chorus was, so we rearranged it. The boys moved
it back again, the crew moved it again, and finally everyone agreed that it was
fine. Then, the fire was sort of kicked and shoved about 5-6 feet over, and
that pleased everyone, too.

The chorus sat down around 6:45 when it was dark, but didn’t
start singing until a few more men came into the plaza to join them. Finally,
around 7:30 or so, one of the older men ran into the plaza and told the chorus
the dancers were coming, and they started singing. The line of dancers waited
out of sight while each dancer entered the plaza and danced solo in front of
the chorus for a few minutes. When the
rhythm changed, that dancer was free to move to the side and a new dancer would
come in. The first dancer was called lingen
and had a lampshade-like hat on. The production crew asked us not to use
flashes on our personal cameras while they were filming, so my photos of the
dance did not come out so well.


Not a good picture of the Lingen dancer.  Photo by Jane Fajans

The next dancers wore the kavat masks, made out of bamboo frames and bark cloth
covering. They were painted with big googly
eyes and wide platypus-like bills, as seen in the picture above. The dancers’
bodies were covered in long grass and flowers.


Kavat dancer dancing in front of us. Photo by Jane Fajans

There is a third kind of dancer who wears a large frame on
either side of him. This frame is woven
with pandanus leaf designs. That night the design consisted of rows of flowers.
This regalia is very ungainly, and the dancer did not stay on the dance ground
very long. None of my photos of him came out well.

During a fire dance, the dancers dance in place in front of
the chorus and then break out and run around the fire and frequently run or
jump into it, and kick the wood and embers around. Sometimes they pick up
pieces of wood and throw them around, too. The young boys are in charge of
keeping the fire going. This alternation of dancing and running through the
fire continues until just before the sun comes up, at which point the masked
dancers are supposed to stamp out the fire and return to the bush.

The masks are said to be representatives of bush spirits
that live in the forest. The Baining say that people who walk around in the
forest alone may meet these spirits, and then they come back to the village and
make a mask inspired by the spirit they encountered. They do not talk very much
about the meaning of the dance. Where I
lived with the North Baining–the next group over–they described the dances
as play, an activity which carries many of the meanings it does for us: both an
activity opposed to work, and a performance or spectacle. The dance is
certainly a spectacle enjoyed not only by outsiders like us, but by the Baining
themselves. As the evening progressed, more and more Baining from the
surrounding hamlets came into our hamlet to enjoy the dance and to watch the
weird antics of the film crew.

We did not stay until the sun came up, but left shortly
after midnight. Everyone was fascinated by the dance and the experience of
being in the village, and it was a hugely successful event.

–Jane Fajans

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