[Dancers in the annual Te Maeva Nui Independence Celebration.]
The Cook Islands lie northeast of New Zealand in the South Pacific Ocean. Cook Islanders are related to the Maori of New Zealand and the inhabitants of French Polynesia (commonly referred to as Tahiti). Cook Islands dance traditions are kept alive through festivals, celebrations and performances for tourists. Cook Islanders living abroad in the United States, Australia and New Zealand perform their dances as a form of cultural preservation.
Dances of the Cook Islands have much in common with other Polynesian dance forms. More widely known dance styles such as the hula from Hawaii and the tamure from Tahiti share similar mythology and dance themes. Cook Island dance performances often include chanting and singing among the dances, which tell stories or serve as spiritual communion with the Polynesian deities.
Men and women dance together in performances, though in separate groups. The women’s movements feature side-to-side movements of the hips. These movements are controlled by the knees. The hips must be energetic, with large, pronounced moves, but the upper body must stay graceful, with the shoulders remaining still. Some movement in the arms and hands may accompany the dance, but it must be carefully controlled.
While the women’s silhouette is vertical with movements centered on the hips, men dance closer to the ground, with stronger movements in a distinctive bent-knee pose. The men move their knees in a quick open-and-close fashion. Grass adornments on the lower legs accentuate these moves.
Distinctive drum beats propel the traditional dance music in the Cook Islands. Contact with Europeans introduced string instruments to Polynesians, which they adapted into their music. The ukulele became an iconic instrument of Hawaiian music, and is also found in the Cook Islands. However, when recreating traditional dance performances, Cook Islanders choose the drums for authenticity. Fast and slow rhythms accompany the dancers and their bodies must keep time with the music. Drummers in the Cook Islands are highly trained and skilled artists. Though drums provide the background for the dance competitions on the islands. Competitions solely for drummers can be found as well.
Traditional dance costumes of the Cook Islands are of natural fabrics and elements, such as shells, bark, grass, leaves, and feathers. Large belts of leaves around the hips increase the illusion of movement, or a long grass skirt hides the movement of the knees. Traditional costumes leave the men’s chests and the women’s abdomens revealed as a way to celebrate the human form.