By Dance Aoki
As the first few chords of “O Saina” are proudly strummed on a guitar by a member of a Chamorro dance company, the performers sing out to Chamorro ancestors to bless them, moving their arms gracefully and reverently to the lyrics of the chant. It’s a stirring performance that is featured at the start of most cultural events in Guam.
The performance of O Saina reminds guests of the indigenous history of the island, and frequently introduces more native dances on display throughout the evening performed by one of the groups within the Pa’a Taotao Tano’ coalition of cultural houses, or Gumas.
Over the last few decades, the native dance of the Chamorro people has grown in popularity under the stewardship of the Gumas and Guma leaders, called fafa’na’gue. The dances unique to the Chamorro culture are performed throughout the world in international dance competitions and showcases, and tourists come to Guam from far and wide to watch the beautiful dancing. Without the work of dedicated artists and scholars seeking to reclaim their native culture, native Chamorro dance would not exist today.
Francisco “Frank” Rabon, founder of the Taotao’ Tano dance goup, is credited for the revival of indigenous Chamorro dance. Originally a dancer of Polynesian styles, Rabon was asked to choreograph a presentation that would showcase Guam in the 1985 Festival of the Pacific Arts. Rabon was inspired by the idea of the indigenous Chamorro identity, and he experimented with different forms of dance, drawing on historical documents and dances from other Pacific Islands.
Prior to Rabon’s work, the dances of the ancient Chamorro people were not very well recorded, if at all. Several historical documents written by early explorers who made their way to the Marianas vaguely described dances performed during the 1600s and 1800s. The dances that were performed by Chamorros throughout the period of Spanish colonization included bailan ha’iguas and bailan pailitu. These dances were accompanied by distinctly Spanish or Mexican music and songs with Chamorro lyrics.
After the Spanish-American War, when Guam became a colony of the United States, the popular dances at the time reflected the island’s Americanization. In the late 1800s, big band music became popular, and Chamorro dancers performed waltzes, ragtime and flapper styles. After World War II, cha-cha and the jitterbug became popular and the dances performed during the Spanish Period became known as “traditional” dances.
Rabon studied historical documents to recreate ancient Chamorro life through dance. The dances that Rabon created were unique to the island, and provides the basis of Chamorro dance being passed down to the next generation of dancers. Although Rabon never claimed to authenticate dances performed before Chamorros were colonized by Spain and America, he sought to give Chamorros a sense of identity and pride in their heritage.
Today there are Gumas that teach Chamorro dance all over the world. They dance in Guam, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, in California and in Japan. In 2009, the Guam Visitors Bureau launched the Guam Chamorro Dance Academy in Japan to teach interested Japanese people the art of Chamorro dance.
Every year, the coalition of dance groups, Pa’a Taotao’ Tano come together to celebrate their heritage and unique native dance during the Dinana’ Minagof Festivals and Competitions held several times a year hosted by Inarajan’s Gef Pa’go Chamorro Cultural Village and Pa’a Taotao Tano’.
To catch a performance from one of about a dozen Gumas in Guam, you can swing by the annual village festivals, one of the annual dance competition or Chamorro Village on a Wednesday night for the night market.