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  • Writer's pictureBanaban Voice

The Curious Banaban Dance: Te Karanga

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

Firsthand Account of Te Karanga - Spear Dance

Ocean Island (Banaba) 1908 [1]

by Arthur Mahaffy, British Colonial Official

Arthur Mahaffy’s First visit to Ocean Island, “Panapa” [2] in 1896

Arthur Mahaffy’s first visit to the island was only for a very short time when he landed at the village of Uma and found it occupied by a purely native community. He recalls,

“ I little thought as I walked about among the curious natives, followed by a troop of delightful-looking clamorous children, that under my feet lay wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, and that in thirteen years’ time I should again visit the island, to find railways, electric light, and telephones installed, and to see four or five 6000-ton steamers waiting to carry away the very ground on which I stood”.

“The Most Curious Dance I Have Never Seen Elsewhere …”

Mahaffy’s’ observations and written recording of early Banaban dancing is from his second visit to the Island in 1908 and provides valuable insight into the unique Banaban dance called, Te Karanga, Spear Dance. It is interesting to read Mahaffy’s very early account of this dance that is still part of Banaban tradition. Unfortunately, the original Banaban dialect in the chants have virtually been lost and only a few words remain today.

“There is one very curious and beautiful dance, which I have never seen elsewhere. The performers are drawn up in two lines facing each other, and each dancer is equipped with a staff about six feet long, decorated with feathers and coloured streamers. A long recitative is sung by the leader at the completion of which the two lines of dancers engage in a most complicated set of figures, passing in and out through the spaces between the performers with wonderful precision. As each man passes his neighbour, he raises his staff above his head and clashes it against the next one in absolute unison. The effect is very fine, and figure follows figure in great variety, always preceded by the chanting of a recitative. The dress of the dancers is also peculiar: they were upon their heads conical caps woven on coconut leaves, and from their waists, almost to the ground, hang petticoats made of the same leaf. They have necklaces of shells and flowers and are profusely anointed with coconut oil”.

“Anointing the Dances …”

What Mahaffy was not aware on during the time of his observations is that the anointing of the dances is an important part of the ritual and the way for the Banabans to evoke spiritual powers for the dancer’s performance.

“During a pause in the dance, the women who are not themselves taking part in it bring bottles of oil, which they pour over their husbands, brothers, or friends in the most liberal way. This is a form of extravagance which “places” the anointers and anointed as among the richest of the population. It is often overdone for the sake of ostentation, and I am sorry to say that quarrels long and bitter have arisen over the liberal or marked oiling of a gentleman by a lady to whose attentions some other member of the male chorus considered that he had a stronger claim”.

Storytelling through Dance in Language Unknown to Islanders

Storytelling and retelling of historical events has been a tradition of Banaban dancing and has been passed down through the generations and can still be found in Banaban dance performances today. Mahaffy’s reference of a graceful series of sitting dances with words unknown to the performers at the time. Could this be the lost Banaban language he is referring to?

“There is also a very graceful series of dances in which the performers are seated, and in which the waving movement of the hands is the remarkable feature. The texts of the songs which accompany these dances are for the most part unintelligible to the present race of islanders and seem to be often the mere repetition of sonorous [3] words without any meaning at all. Improvisation is, however, not rare, and the current events on the island and the peculiarities of natives, or of white men, provide the subject for many dances. Some few there are which are obscene, but they are not many, and the whole performance is very harmless”.

The Banaban Dance Costume Hand Ornament

“One peculiarity of these dancers I have remarked. A small ring of fibre is fastened to the fourth finger of each hand and is carded out into a kind of fan-shaped tuft at the spot where the seal would be on one of our rings. The tuft rises at right angles with the fingers, to the height of two or three inches, and the perpetual quivering motion of the hands, which is essential in all these dances, agitates the tuft of fibre very much as a butterfly, lighting on a flower, moves his closed wings. I could not find that the decoration was known to the natives as a conscious imitation of it, but I very strongly suspect that its origin may be traced to it”.

Te Tiakaunga, the Banaban Dance Conductor

“Of one native dancer I retain the liveliest remembrance. He was a hunchback, the only one I think on the island, but his agility was wonderful, and he led and directed all the more elaborate measures. He was also a humorous person, and his improvisations always provoked shouts of laughter. During the dance he was as one possessed with the spirit of perpetual motion, he was never still for a moment, and his enjoyment was delightful to see. In everyday life he was a quiet, reserved little man, but at a dance he became transfigured. Never gnome or kobold [4] skipped around a Northern Fairy Ring with more delight or with more delicate skill”.

The Banaban character mentioned by Mahaffy is well known as a Banaban te tiakaunga, dance conductor and he can be seen in one of the historical dance group photographs taken in the early 1900s.

The performance of the Te Karanga lives on as part of Banaban tradition today.


Excerpts: OCEAN ISLAND, November 1910, Blackwood’s Magazine

[1] Arthur Mahaffy (1869-1919). A British colonial official, made an inspection visit to the Gilbert and Ellice Island protectorate to review economic and social conditions. Mahaffy’s eight-page report was submitted to the Office of the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific in Suva Fiji. This Article relating to OCEAN ISLAND was published Blackwood’s Magazine, 1910.

[2] Panapa; Paanopa; was the old name Banaba island was known by whaling, trading and blackbirding ships prior to the discovery of phosphate in 1900. The name is the phonetic spelling of Banaba as there is no ‘p’ in the Banaban language and it translates to the ‘b’ sound in English.

[3] Sonorous: A person's voice or another sound imposingly deep and full. Capable of producing a deep or ringing sound. Of a speech or style using imposing language.

[4] The kobold (occasionally cobold) is a sprite stemming from Germanic mythology and surviving into modern times in German folklore


Meet the Author

Stacey M. King is a businesswoman with commercial interests in the natural health and organic industries and indigenous arts throughout Australia and the Pacific. She is an author and historian who specialises in Banaban Colonial history. Her association with the Banabans is more than a casual interest. Four generations of her family were involved with the early mining industry of Banaba (also known as Ocean Island) between 1901-1931. In 1997, Stacey formed a personal and collaborative partnership with Banaban clan spokesman, Raobeia Ken Sigrah, and they both believe that their lives and destiny were intertwined, bringing them together 100 years later to try and right the wrongs of the past. Together they continue their advocacy for the Banaban community, and with the establishment of Banaban Vision Publications, they are converting much of their writings and research findings into digital publications for future Banaban generations and for a broader audience keen to learn more about the plight of the indigenous Banaban people in the modern world. For more detailed information Stacey M. King

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