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Dance Rapa Nui style

T&T dancers celebrate Polynesian culture
Published: 
Wednesday, June 28, 2017
A Rapa Nui man dances in his indigenous costume as part of celebrations in Easter Island.

From far across the sea, from the tiny Chilean island of Rapa Nui in the Pacific Ocean, comes a celebration of ancestral dance to Trinidad. Tomorrow evening, a group of T&T performers, led by Ariel Zapata who is originally from Rapa Nui, will perform dances from the Rapa Nui tradition at the National Library in Port-of-Spain. The event is free and open to the public, and is part of Latin Nights, six evenings of events at the National Library this week, featuring culture from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Costa Rica and El Salvador.

Rapa Nui, also called Easter Island (Isla de Pascua), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site perhaps best known for its massive, mysterious statues called “moai” which seem to sprout from the island like a crop of stern monolithic gods—some believe them to be representations of deified ancestors, carved many centuries ago.

The group performing tomorrow is, interestingly, comprised of T&T dancers led by one Easter Island man who fell in love with a Trinidadian woman. He decided to settle in Trinidad almost three years ago. It’s a romance of two very different islands spanning a great distance, a relationship which became closer two years ago when Ariel Zapata, a fibre optic specialist from Rapa Nui, married Joanna Line of Trinidad. Both Ariel and Joanna are passionate about traditional Polynesian dancing. They soon formed their own small T&T group to train locals how to dance, Rapa Nui style.

The Rapa Nui people are the native Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island. Their traditional culture includes percussive dances, choral singing and chanting, accompanied by instruments such as conch shell trumpets, accordions, and the “kauaha”—a percussion instrument made from a horse’s jawbone.

Today, the island’s unique culture is kept alive with activities and festivals that highlight ancient arts such as spear throwing, dancing and body painting. The island’s top celebration is the Tapati Festival, which revolves around a series of competitions based on ancient sports. The Rapa Nui culture also includes a national football team and a spirited musical tradition that combines South American and Polynesian influences.

We spoke to Joanna Line-Zapata by phone yesterday. She said the Rapa Nui local dance group of nine dancers includes two dancers from Tobago, one dancer from Easter Island (her husband Ariel), with the rest of dancers from Trinidad. She spoke a little about Rapa Nui dance:

“We use traditional Easter Island music. We will do eight dances tomorrow. The men will do a warrior dance while the women’s styles are gentler, relating to the rhythms of the waves, the sea, and beaches. Every song tells a story, and there are specific movements for every word. For example, some body motions correspond to waves in the sea. We practice in various places, including the Queen’s Park Savannah. My husband Ariel and I made all the costumes from totally natural materials; some materials he brought with him from Easter Island and some we sourced here in T&T. Our local fibre optics company, Netfos (http://netfostt.webnode.es/), sponsored all the costumes for the band.”

Ambassador of Chile, Fernando Schmidt Ariztía, told the Guardian:

“Chile is a multicultural country of different heritages, and within that, Rapa Nui is a unique island culture. Rapa Nui, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is just 163 sq km in area—about the size of Aruba. Yet while Aruba has about 100,000 people, Rapa Nui’s population is about 5,750 people… Rapa Nui is about half the size of Tobago.”

Despite this low population density (just 35 inhabitants per square kilometre), Rapa Nui has created a unique culture of world class standard, said Ambassador Schmidt Ariztía, noting the strength of Rapa Nui oral traditions.

He said the original inhabitants of this remote island originally came centuries ago from the Central Pacific area, sailing on large sea-going barges which could each carry some 70-100 people. They navigated by means of an amazing indigenous knowledge of ocean currents and the stars. These ancient people and their descendants recreated the dances, rituals, music and sacred symbols from their own practice to form the basis of Rapa Nui indigenous culture today. Ambassador Schmidt Ariztía commented:

“The Trinidad Rapa Nui group to dance tomorrow are almost all T&T citizens, with the exception of Ariel Zapata from Easter Island. They have made their own costumes all in T&T, to give a flavour of Polynesia from Chile… The Prime Minister of T&T visited Chile recently, and one of the aspects in the joint declaration that was emphasised was that we need to promote a dialogue between cultures.” He added:

“The dance group which performs tomorrow is an example of the dialogue between different island cultures across the oceans.”

Latin Nights events

Tues June 17, 6 pm: Argentina. Sintiendo a Piazzolla-Documentary film on Astor Piazzolla, Argentine tango musician and composer

Wed June 28, 6.30 pm: Brazil. AV show: A Journey Through Brazilian Poetry

Thurs June 29, 6.30 pm: Chile. Dance, crafts and food from Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Fri June 30, 6.30: Cuba. Film-Trinidad, a documentary about Cuban Trinidad; and the film Habanastation

Sat July 1, 5.30pm: Costa Rica. Lantern workshop, storytelling, dance, parade and video.

Mon, July 3, 6.30 pm: El Salvador. Photo exhibition of colonial city of Suchitoto; food on sale

MORE INFO: Contact 624-4466, ext 2323, or visit www.nalis.gov.tt

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