Ellen: October 2007 Archives

Balinese dance captures one's attention immediately as the dancers move to tell ancient stories through physicality and props. The picture below shows a young Balinese dancer in her costume with a flower-covered headdress and expressive fan. This photograph hangs in the Seacology office, taken in 2002 during an expedition to visit a Seacology-funded wastewater garden at Tirtagangga Water Palace. Every time I walk past the picture, I am captivated by the young girl's seriousness, her eyes so intent, her motion captured like that in so many Indian sculptures.

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Balinese dance, music, and ceremonies are offerings to Hindu deities and tell the ancient epic stories of the Hindu religion. As a former hula dancer, I enjoy art forms that pass along stories, be they through oral history, art, music, or dance. The combination of message and movement is fascinating to me and so important to passing along traditions to future generations.

Polynesians share many similar cultural traits, from language and music to family structure. One of the most sacred of Polynesian traditions, the kava ceremony, is also one of the most well-known. Tasting like a wet dish towel to my unrefined palette, kava is a relaxant which was banned in 2003 by several countries because of medical concerns. A recent push to lift that ban (Fiji Times article, September 24) and a new University of Hawai'i study (Honolulu Advertiser article by Dan Nakaso, September 22) brings kava back into the news. Despite these developments, it is the tradition of the kava ceremony that interests me most.

Kava has many names: 'ava in Samoa, 'awa in Hawai'i, yaqona in Fiji, and sakau in Micronesia. The drink is made from the ground root of the pepper plant Piper methysticum. The root, a long beige stick about 2 inches in diameter, is ground to a pulp and then massaged in a sack made from coconut fiber and mixed with water to make the juice. The drink is collected in a wooden bowl with legs and one uses a half-coconut shell to scoop the liquid.