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Siva is my Fingerprint: Auckland’s diverse communities keep dance traditions alive

By Dagmar Simon

Since arriving in Auckland in the late 1980s, I have been fascinated by the diversity of culturally-specific dance and believe that this diversity is fuelling Auckland’s cultural vibrancy. Dance traditions from across the world are practised today in a myriad of situations and contexts in Auckland: in local communities, churches, marae, schools, tertiary institutions, cultural societies, and they often showcase in large public events such as the International Cultural Festival, Diwali and Pasifika.

I wanted to find out more, particularly who participates and why, where, and when. So I designed a doctoral research project for which I chose three case studies: Samoan, Indian and Croatian/Dalmatian dance (Dalmatia is a province on the coastline of Croatia). Then I spent over a year intermingling with dance groups, experts, choreographers and advocates.

The study created snapshots of those three culturallyspecific dance practices in 2012. Local practitioners were mostly motivated by wanting to pass on cultural traditions and they had ample knowledge about their dance forms’ domestic and international histories. Friction between traditional and new choreography was a recurring topic in all three studies and everyone suggested a “traditional plus contemporary” approach rather than pitching those two against each other.

Most dancers had ancestral affiliation with the culture of their chosen dance form. Interviewees portrayed their partaking as a way of belonging to their cultural communities and (re)affirming their cultural identity. Several second generation migrants described it as their main source for cultural knowledge and understanding. The intergenerational link created through cultural dance practices emerged in all three studies and the Dalmatians expressed this particularly strongly.

In Auckland, Croatian Kolo is mainly practised within two cultural societies that provide good infrastructure. Kolo means circle, describing the prominent choreographic form found in the rich and multifarious dance traditions from the region. Dance participants at the Dalmatian Cultural Society learn traditional choreographies from across the Balkans and most importantly the New Zealand Dalmatian Kolo, a choreography which migrants from Dalmatia (endearingly called “Dallies” in New Zealand) created in Auckland in 1935. They combined segments of various village dances they remembered and created a unique New Zealand-specific Kolo which is much cherished by the community.

Samoan Siva happens largely within Samoan communities, in churches, at family occasions, at fundraising events for Samoa, and at Polyfest and Pasifika. Community education classes and fitness programmes for adults based on Siva weren’t happening during my year of field research. However, Pacific Dance NZ offers a multitude of classes for children and adolescents. Second generation migrants appreciate this programme greatly as they often lead busy lives and lack the knowledge to teach their children the Siva. Several interviewees were critical of traditional teaching practices as well as female role expectations (mirrored in dance practices) and suggested that in the New Zealand context both need adapting.

Many choreographers of Samoan heritage highlighted the need for personal expression rooted in their New Zealand experiences. Often also trained in theatre dance, these choreographers have successfully surged into Western performance contexts and, as several interviewees pointed out, discussions about how to stay true to themselves, their cultural heritage, and the needs of Pacific audiences in light of commercial imperatives accompanying these shifts are important and ongoing.

Several dancers trained in Indian dance forms offer classes across Auckland mostly attracting students from Indian communities, unless it’s Bollywood, which has a wider attraction. My research focused on Kathak (from Northern India) and Bharata Natyam (from Southern India), both classified as “Classical Indian Dance”. Both have long histories, extensive and specific vocabularies, and their meanings are apparent if you are knowledgeable. Most interviewees performed in community, corporate or high profile events and were aware of the difficulties for outsiders to “read” Classical Indian works. However many were relaxed about spectators creating their own meaning.

For some young Indian women, Kathak or Bharata Natyam were the main source of cultural learning which in turn empowered them to make an informed choice about their cultural identity as Kiwi Indians. One young woman highlighted this: “Without the dance there would be almost no attachment to Indian things apart from the family”.

The lack of cultural mix in the studied groups surprised me and made me ponder the lost opportunities for cross-cultural encounters. When participating in dance of other cultures, one learns about their cultural norms, rituals, and ways of relating to space (performance, personal or spiritual space). It is about music, storytelling, costumes, props and through this having a shared experience of how energy, cohesion, and togetherness are created. It is about experiencing difference but, as some interviewees emphasised, also about experiencing similarities and sameness.

Auckland’s huge cultural events promote cultural understanding but are largely limited to passive viewing. However, an embodied experience of dance from another culture extends your understanding of that culture immensely. Therefore I’m suggesting that culturally specific dances could significantly contribute to creating a dynamic urban diversity in Auckland where people don’t just live alongside each other but actively engage and understand.

For this purpose let’s get out of our silos and join in with each other. Enjoy!

Download the full article (Iss. 42): Siva is my Fingerprint 

Siva is my Fingerprint

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