Sunday, June 01, 2008

Baining Fire Dance

As tourism continues to increase at the north tip of New Britain Island in the Kokopo/Rabaul region side industries have sprouted up. One of the most prominent of these is a clan that has established a troop of fire dancers that will come around to the different hotels when there is a large group or a VIP staying there.

The dancers, all men, and their support crew arrive in the later afternoon or early evening and begin setting up. They unload all of the necessary firewood, which is considerable. They prepare their masks and don their costumes which consist of giant masks (vungvung), large wooden chest plates, lots of black and white body paint, a large mass of tropical plants on their back and, most importantly, the thick layers of plants that protect their lower legs. It should be noted that the plants they wear on their lower legs does not protect the bottoms of the dancers' feet. Oh, and they don't wear shoes either.

Usually between 8 and 12 musicians accompany the dancers. Their instruments are hollowed out pieces of bamboo of varying lengths and diameters. Each man pounds his piece of bamboo on a large wooden pallet in a complicated fast-paced rhythm. The different sized pieces of bamboo create different tones. Chanting also occurs throughout the performance.

Once the fire has been lit, the music begins and after a minute or so the first dancer comes out of darkness and approaches the musicians. After dancing for about 30 second he moves over to a position behind the fire. Each of the remaining dancers is brought out one by one until they are all lined up. The pace of the music then begins to increase and the dancers begin to jump, hop, shuffle, shimmy and twirl around the fire. Eventually, the pace becomes so fast that it drives the dancers to jump up into the fire causing a massive column of sparks to erupt. The dancer then jumps out of the fire and continues to dance. Each of the dancers takes turns jumping in and out of the fire.

According to our hotel staff the dancers represent spirits who surround us at all times and play a critical role in our lives. Through the music and dancing spirits are enticed to join in and dance. The better the performance the more pleased the spirits will be and thus increase the likely hood of good fortune in the future.

Photos by Kaily Brown.

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