Sunday, June 20, 2010

Baby Oil, Money, and Disco: My Ta'olunga

I’d performed a ta’olunga, the traditional Tongan standing dance, during my homestay last October, but that was with another Peace Corps Trainee on the stage with me, and a bunch of Peace Corps friends in the audience. Then I performed the traditional sitting dance, the ma’ulu’ulu, for our Swearing-In Ceremony, but again, that was on a stage with other palangis and in a room filled with a sympathetic audience.

Though I knew the audience at my school’s concert wouldn’t be critical, it was the first time I was on the stage by myself with dozens of people watching just me. Moreover, they were all great at this kind of dance, whereas I was far from decent.

My principal and neighbor, Pauline, taught me the dance over a course of two weeks. I practiced all the time – by myself during the day and with the music when there was electricity. I’d borrowed the dancing costume from the only girl in town who is about my size. I’d bought the baby oil that ta’olunga dancers slather on their bodies so money sticks to them. I was as prepared as I could be.

The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry. I began my dance. All was going acceptably well through about two and a half verses of the song. Then, following Tongan tradition, people started coming up to stick money on my baby-oiled body.

It all fell apart from there. I got so distracted by the people who donate money by crowding around me and slapping bills on my oily skin that I forgot the moves. I must have had a look of “oh no! What comes next?” since there was a little chuckle through the audience.

Pauline, the principal-neighbor-dance instructor, was on stage too, so I look to her for help. Her reply: “Oh, just disikou.” Yep, that’s a cognate for disco, and, to Tongans, that means just dance however you want. No way! I had practiced this dance and I’d worked hard at this dance, and I wanted to be able to perform it.

Pauline eventually got me back on track. I finished the dance. I was somewhat embarrassed that I forgot half of the moves, but no one in the village seemed to care. The rest of the night and the next day, everyone who saw me told me how wonderful my ta’olunga was. Surely they were lying, but having a palangi try to do a Tongan dance must have been pretty amusing.

I always hear stories about the Peace Corps Volunteer who was here before me. “Kalani once did this.” “Kalani once did that.” Maybe in a few years they’ll be saying, “Pele once did a ta’olunga for the school koniseti.” And then maybe they’ll laugh and say, “And she forgot half of it.”

June - School Koniseti