Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Day I Became an Exotic Dancer

On Friday, Oct. 28, we had the big event to officially open the expanded assembly hall.  It was a doozy of a day.  Here’s what happened:
7:30 a.m.  I arrived at school.  The playground was full of excited kids and there was a slew of men working over a blazing fire, barbequing chicken.

8:30 a.m.  The kids went into a classroom to continue practicing a song they’d begun learning the day before.  The practice session was led by the top Year 8 girl.

9:30 a.m.  The kids were still practicing and the teachers were still chilling in the classroom next door, drinking the coffee I’d brought as a treat.  And by coffee, I mean Nescafe 3 in 1, which is instant coffee with sugar and creamer added.  The teachers and I love it.  They add extra sugar to theirs but I’m tough and drink it as is.

10:00 a.m.  After a couple of hours of sitting around doing nothing, it was time to get the show on the road.  The hall was decorated and looked great, the pastors were there and we were set.  The school committee and matais (chiefs) representing each sub-village  stood to either side of the rows of kids and the teachers stood in the year.  We stood patiently in the hot sun as both pastors said prayers.  Then the School Co. rep made a short speech.  Then the principal made a short speech and cut the ribbon.  The school committee president handed over the keys to the rooms at the rear of the hall to the principal and it was time to go into the hall.

10:30 a.m.  The ceremony was comprised of prayers, speeches and songs done by the children.  I’d been sitting with the teachers when I was told I had to move closer to the principal, to a place of honor.  As usual, I never quite know the protocol and no one seemed to notice until 10 minutes into the program.

10:40 a.m.  The Year 7 girls got up with two teachers and left.  I didn’t know what was going on.  They quickly returned, carrying ulas (leis) for the school committee, matais, pastors and teachers.  I was already wearing two ulas that I’d been given earlier by 2 students.  Being given an ula is a sign of honor and respect.  I especially liked the frangipani ula, which had a lovely yet delicate fragrance.

10:45 a.m.  Just as I thought things were wrapping up and it would be time to go, the giant sound system came to life and Samoan music started playing.  At the same time, my boss leaned over and said “Time for you to dance.”  “What?  Me?  Alone?”  “Yes.  Hurry!”

It took me a second to realize that I was being told I had to do a traditional Samoan dance, with everybody staring at me.  I was unprepared.  I can no more do a traditional Samoan dance than I can do the hula or a fire dance.   I was not happy.  But I sucked it up, got up and started dancing.  Unfortunately, I was facing the stage/pastors and the children.  Wrong.  One of the teachers stage whispered “Turn around and dance for the chiefs!”  Oops.

I danced through the entire song, while everyone seemed to enjoy watching the awkward palagi.  What fun.  I gratefully took my seat and was starting to regain my composure when another song started and my pule leaned over again and said “Now you have to dance for each chief.”   “You’re kidding.”  “No, you must do it.”

I glared at the pule, considering how I might get even some day, and got up to dance again.  Since I’d never seen this kind of thing done and was clearly at a loss, two of the teachers got up and demonstrated what was expected.  I had to bow before each chief and dance for him.  While I was doing the dancing, in typical Samoan fashion, a box was placed in the middle of the floor so the chiefs could express their appreciation for my dance by placing money in the box.

Thankfully, that ceremony ended after that dance.

11:00 a.m.  The children were excused and hit the playground to play rugby and volleyball.  The teachers all got up and headed to the room where the young untitled men had been putting together plates of food.  The teachers began serving the chiefs, in order of rank.  Because there are few teachers and a lot of matais they even let me help serve.

I was then given a woven plate and told to sit down and eat.  I sat down with my food and realized I was the only teacher (and only woman) still in the hall.  It was just me and the matais.  Awkward.  My tray included 2 chicken legs, part of a pig leg (I know because the hoof was attached), a sausage, 3 pieces of taro and a small piece of palusami.  Everything was covered in catsup, which is expensive and used liberally at special meals.  Finally, one of the chiefs got up and headed toward the school.  I followed, carrying my platter of food with me.

I found the teachers having a relaxed meal in one of the classrooms.  I asked why I didn’t get to eat with them.  “The men like you.”  How nice. 

We then sat around.  I kept asking what we were waiting for and people just shrugged.  Someone said we were waiting for the party to start.  Finally someone explained that the school committee was meeting and when they were done, we’d go back to the hall for the party.  The party was just for the school committee, the carpenters and the teachers.

While we waited, the teachers counted the money that the chiefs had put in the box while I danced.  I heard someone say $200.  I don’t know for sure how much was collected, nor do I know where the money went.  I did not get any.  After PC, maybe I’ll get a gig as an exotic dancer.  At least I’d get to keep my tips.

12:30 p.m.  Let’s get this party started!  The teachers moved over to the hall, the carpenters and school committee joined us and the music began.  The music was provided by a DJ, using the giant sound system.  It was really loud.  Kids were still hanging out on the playground.

The teachers sat together and there were three groups of men sitting together in circles, two circles of older men on chairs and the carpenters on the floor.   I was told I had to go and ask each man to dance, starting with the eldest.  I did.  I have photos (which I will not be posting) of me dancing with each member of the school committee, along with a couple of the carpenters, who asked me.   Samoans like to dance.  Men danced alone, with women (usually me), and each other. 

 The beverage of choice for the men was primarily the cheap local Niu vodka.  There were also a lot of quart bottles of beer.  Most teachers, including me, had one small drink.  The men made up for us and were making frequent trips to my families store next door to buy more liquor.

2:35 p.m.  Samoans love speeches, drunk or sober, and one guy took the floor to make a speech.  Another man seemed to take exception to what he was saying and they got into a shouting match.  I have trouble understanding Samoan when it’s spoken slowly and clearly.  I have no clue what they were yelling about.  To break the tension, two of the other (female) teachers and I got up and started to dance.
Shortly after that, someone made an announcement and all the men hit the dance floor.   The traditional “last dance” at a party in Samoa is to have all the matais dance together.  They started it but everyone who could still stand up joined in.

3:15 p.m.  Once again someone got up to the microphone and started making a speech.  I assumed it was the official end of the party.   The same guy who started yelling before, started again.  This time, two young untitled men also started yelling.  Next thing I knew, the young guy standing next to me had a ceramic mug broken on his head.  In response, he broke a chair over the back of the guy who cold cocked him.  Then the punches started flying.  This happened very quickly.  I immediately grabbed my purse and headed toward the exit.  Unfortunately, the combatants were also headed that way as the rest of the men tried to drag them apart.  My primary goal was to not get punched by mistake. 

I made it out of the hall without incident and went to my host brother, who’d come over a few minutes earlier.  He explained that the fight was about some men saying it was time to turn off the music and go home and others who weren’t ready to leave.  One of the young men wanted to speak to the group but because he isn’t a chief, the other young man was telling him he had no right to speak and to sit down and shut up.   One thing the fight confirmed to me – never, ever, ever get in a fight with a drunk Samoan.  They are strong, physical and you will not win.

While my brother was explaining this to me, some of the teachers and one of the school committee came over to talk to me.  They were very concerned that I was alright and did not think badly of them.  I told them I was fine and that I’d enjoyed the day.  I also let them know that we get drunk and fight in America, too.    As I was saying my goodbyes, another member of the school committee (the one who told me there’d be kissing) came over, put his ula on me and kissed me.  Very quickly, another man came over and did the same thing.  They were very platonic kisses but since I didn’t want to kiss 23 more men or wear 23 more ulas, I headed home.  The party seemed to be breaking up and I assumed everyone was headed out.

4:30 p.m.  I can see the school hall from my house.  I could hear the music blasting and see people still dancing.  Seems I was the only party pooper.

4:45 p.m.  Music still going, but I can see the teachers driving away. 

6:00 p.m.  The music has stopped but there are still men there, talking and drinking.  Here’s another lesson:  never try to match a Samoan drink for drink.  You’ll lose.

7:30 p.m.  It is dark and I don’t know if there’s anyone left at the school.  The great news for me is that the light they’ve been leaving on all night at the hall is “uma”…done.  I’m back to sleeping by only the light of the stars and moon.

All in all, a good day.  I wish someone had warned me about having to perform.  I’ve been told that I’ll be dancing again at prize giving at the end of the term, for a much larger crowd.  They explained that having me dance for the crowd was to honor me.  I explained that in the U.S., surprising someone like that is not considered an honor.  At least now I’ll have a chance to practice.

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