Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 27, November 2011

a photo essay by Tony Whincup
Mwaie Chant (00:02:52, mp3, 5.4mb)
Click on pictures for captions.

The following photographic essay focuses upon the role of women in traditional I-Kiribati dance, te mwaie. The images draw attention to the context in which the women operate, the materials with which they engage, their relationships with others and emotional aspects of dance performance. Each group of images is clustered around a particular theme: the first the atoll context, followed by material preparation, then the primary site of the dance performance—the meeting house, te mwaneaba, practice and preparation and finally performance and associated emotional expressions.

The photographs are based on the belief that ethnographic understanding proceeds from a tentative assessment of context by reference to its constitutive parts. This action redefines the context and furthers understanding of the particular, gradually spiraling outwards to the limits of interpretation. The tangible objects that comprise the photographs are understood and have meaning as a part of the I-Kiribati social system. It is in the inter and intra relationships of these objects, isolated and united by the photograph's frame, and between the images themselves that a social interpretation is developed. The unique combination of images aims to produce a holistic reading greater than the some of its parts.

To begin to understand something of the significance of gender roles in te mwaie it is necessary to understand gender construction in the day to day I-Kiribati existence where male and female roles are, in general, clearly defined and maintained. Men build canoes, cut te karewe (coconut toddy), go fishing and build houses. Women make string and thatch, weave, look after the children and cook. The man has the authority and power in both home and meeting house.

Dance is an exception to the clear gender definitions maintained in I-Kiribati society. Dance is a domain in which power, authority, sexuality and practices become blurred—gender differences are not so clearly defined. Many of the roles within dance are common to both men and women and are seen to have equal importance. Differentiation that is maintained is seen in a small number of gender specific dances and costumes. The strict control adhered to for body positions and movements, and the inter-changeability of most dances for the sexes, provides a strong contrast to the often overtly sexual and gender differentiating performances of many Polynesian dances. I-Kiribati women though are still thought to be at their most attractive when dancing well and there is the potential for spousal jealousy even when permission or encouragement to dance has been given by the husband.

Dance also necessitates that women 'stand out' and be 'looked at' during their performance, a practice that would not be tolerated outside the confines of dance and is in sharp contrast to the norms of I-Kiribati behaviour. The adoption of such a strongly differentiated role produces great tension and strong emotions for both men and women performers.

Women are vitally involved in all aspects of te mwaie—they can be teachers, organisers of dancing teams and of performances themselves, and they also produce the costumes and decorations, which are an essential part of the dance. The experience with particular objects and associated practices of dance provides an intergenerational link and the sense of 'being' an I-Kiribati woman. She is united here with other women who share and understand

these experiences. Her involvement in te mwaie can be seen as a part of her extended self and a part of her socialisation as an I-Kiribati. The women's contribution both as performers and in providing choral and rhythmic support is fundamental to any dance occasion.

Dance for the women of Kiribati is a significant activity in all aspects of production and performance. This domain endows women with a powerful vehicle for self-definition and self-recognition, both as individuals and as part of a social group. A dialectic relationship exists between women and te mwaie in which each develops an enduring social significance in a practice that lies at the heart of what it is to be I-Kiribati.

I-Kiribati traditional dance includes the principal dancers, who are carefully selected, rehearsed and immaculately dressed and decorated, and a chorus, which comprises anyone from the youngest to the oldest in the village joining in to provide a rhythmic and melodic framework. The melodies are generally sung in unison. Stamping of feet on the floor of te mwaneaba and the clapping and slapping of dancing mats with the palm of the hand provide a rhythmic accompaniment.

Dancers and the chorus are structured as two strongly contrasting parts of the one performance. The dancers are to remain seemingly aloof, as they repeatedly retrace their precise and controlled movements in contrast to the mounting energy and passion of the chorus. The performance can be seen as a struggle between the opposing forces of static and dynamic values. The dancers embody the static values of control, historical patterns and established expectations, whereas the chorus responds creatively and interacts spontaneously. The tension between the two is exquisite for both the performers and audience.

To be properly understood, the significance of the dance performance must be seen against its social context. In Kiribati, overt and individualistic behaviour is frowned upon. During the dance though, performers become the focal point of attention. This in itself is unusual, and the intensity of the moment is heightened by the lengthy preparations for the performance and the social significance of the venue. Dance provides a rare and socially acceptable opportunity to publicly express emotion and individuality.

It can convey

    …joy and sorrow, maybe love, friendship being expressed through the dance in the highest way – so dancing in Kiribati, I think, is one of the highest forms of expression–the preparation of dance takes a long time, so in doing that they really develop their sense of unity towards the community – it's a way of educating our young people, participating in their culture especially in dances – so dance is the centre of our life really. This is the way of our highest point of expression, our emotions and feelings about life and relationship between one another and also the relationship with the invisible world, the spirit, all in the dance; so it's a big wealth for us and a very rich expression of our life through the dances.[2]

The Republic of Kiribati is a chain of coral atolls straddling the equator approximately halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The reefs are the defence against relentless waves upon these precarious landfalls. There is nowhere, not even in the centre of the lagoon, that the incessant roar of the breakers is not heard. These tiny ribbons of coral with no fresh surface water and thin, infertile soil are the home of the I-Kiribati. It is hard not to experience the immensity of the isolation of these islands. Traditionally the spirits, te anti, were an omnipresent part of existence and for many their presence is still recognised today.
In Kiribati most of the objects used in day-to-day life are made from local materials that are found in the immediate vicinity of the villages and prepared by the communal skills and effort of the family. Inevitably, with the limited resources available and the imperatives of survival, an emphasis on functionality and simplicity of form has resulted. Much of the success of the I-Kiribati communities arises from their ability to exploit the potential of available materials for a wide range of purposes.

The cool of the early evening is the time to relax with games and entertainment and a bathe before sunset at around seven o'clock.

The cultural practices of the I-Kiribati are particular to the here and now – to the resources of the land and sea. Days have a predictable pattern to them. Every morning and evening men must climb their coconut trees to gather its sap while women sweep the compounds. There is always work to do – collecting materials or making thatch and mats, repairing fishing nets, eel traps, preparing food, feeding the pigs and making string from the coconut husk. Children sit with parents and grandparents learning the skills of survival. They also learn values, attitudes and ways of behaving through these long periods with the older people of the village.

On the 'outer islands', where many of the ancient skills, traditions and cultural patterns are maintained, the I-Kiribati can subsist comfortably, using few imported products. Coconut and pandanus trees provide both food and shelter, and fish of many types are caught in the lagoon and ocean. On these atolls traditional knowledge is practised and maintained. Subsistence life on an atoll is held in a fine balance between the limited resources, the ingenious use of traditional skills and the weather – an inter-relationship that is vulnerable to even the slightest change.

I-Kiribati are communal people. Constraints of isolation and the imperatives for survival in the limited atoll environment demand group co-operation and contribution.

The islands support a limited range of plant life which is used with great ingenuity and creativity. Plants such as the coconut palm and its fruit, the pandanus tree and a range of local flowers are drawn into the complex and ancient methods of costume preparation. Skirts, dancing mats, belts, head and arm decorations are all produced from the atoll's few natural resources. On the one hand the preparations support and identify individual skills and status, and on the other, perpetuate communal activity.

The preparation of costume is not only functional, it is also symbolic and, for many, spiritual. A loss of the ritual process and community commitment might also affect the symbolic and spiritual nature of dance itself. The energy and creativity given to the construction of the artefacts associated with dance indicate its significance in the hard-won subsistence life of Kiribati society.

Traditionally te mwaneaba is the social nexus of village life. It is in this structure that village decisions are made by unimane, whose seating positions declare their authority and status within the community. Te mwaneaba is the site of significant social activities such as traditional dance. It is a place of dignity and formality. There is an inter-relationship in which the activities in te mwaneaba are imbued with stature and significance, and which in turn define te mwaneaba as a place of power and authority.
The practices within te mwaneaba are significant in the way each reflects and constructs the other. For example, mwaie has historically been imbued with considerable authority by being performed in te mwaneaba. The special quality of the site enhances the feelings of the dancers and audience, heightening the tension and emotions of the performance. The dance brings together the village, historical procedures, spirituality and strong emotions, which in turn construct the social significance of te mwaneaba through its presence.

A skirt of significant difference in both design and use is te riri ni buki. Usually, te riri ni buki is made from young coconut leaves, which are boiled first, dried and woven the following day. Large loops of the boiled fronds are threaded onto the skirt's waistband. When finished the voluminous and weighty te buki skirt reaches to just above the ankles.

The transition between preparation and performance is a significant event in its own right. As the dancer's body is oiled, the costume tied in place and decorations applied, assistants incant words of support and strength. Dressing is no mere point of decoration, rather it marks a mental and spiritual preparation. For many dancers, a significant emotional shift occurs at this point as they move from their day to day lives into the soul and history of an I-Kiribati dancer.

Dance is an emotional state for performer and observer, a state reached through a close connection with the artefacts involved in its performance and a still a widely held belief in the association of magic, te tabunea, for superior dancing ability. The general ritual practices of dance include not going out in the sun (so as to avoid darkening the skin), avoiding certain types of food, self-control and temperance both in behaviour and in eating and drinking. The combination of strict preparation, the significance of te mwaneaba, the exciting rhythms and chants and the rare opportunity to be a centre of attention combine to produce extremes of emotion in the dancers.

The vigorous clapping and chanting of the chorus and the stately, controlled movements of the dancers embody centuries of history in the minutiae of their movements and the words of the ancient songs. The songs speak of great battles, the legends of creation and migration, and the ebb and flow of I-Kiribati life. There is no one singular purpose for dance in Kiribati, but the numerous activities necessary for its production involve skills of material culture, maintenance of traditional beliefs in magic and the spiritual world, the oral histories embodied in the lyrics, and the psychological release the performance provides in its public expression. On the one hand te mwaie emphasises individuality for the dancers, and on the other the social traditions and history of the culture are maintained within the framework for its performance.

' … this is our culture and identity, we are known as I-Kiribati from the way we dance … That is why I love my traditional dance very very much. I love it because it is my identity.'[49]


[1] Figure 1. Te bino deals with lyric poetry and particularly themes of love; it can also be heroic especially for honouring distinguished groups of people. Both dancers and chorus are seated for te bino and it can be performed by men or women. The movement is in the head, arms and body, while the legs remain crossed. The feet are crossed flat, one foot fitting into the thigh and the other on the floor, so that te kabae, the dancing mat, will lie properly. Place: Abatao, North Tarawa, Kiribati, 1998.

[2] Mea, Bishop Paul, Kiribati: Teaorereke, South Tarawa, 1999, original tape recording, transcript and translation held by author.

[3] Figure: 2. Coconut palms, pandanus and breadfruit trees have adapted to the sandy soil of the atolls. I, giant swamp taro, needs careful tending. Place: Abemama, Kiribati, 1998.

[4] Figure: 3. The narrow ribbons of land that comprise the atolls of Kiribati, rise only 2 metres above sea-level and are thought to be seriously threatened by climate changes. Place: Onotoa, Kiribati, 1982

[5] Figure: 4. Lagoon, Place: Abemama, Kiribati, 2006.

[6] Figure: 5. Net fishing – the cultural practices of the I-Kiribati are particular to the here and now – the land, the sea and the climate, Place: North Tarawa, Kiribati, 2006.

[7] Figure: 6. Te bangota – an ancient shrine where offerings are made to the spirit of the ancestors, often for success in dancing. Place: Abatao, North Tarawa, Kiribati, 1998.

[8] Figure: 7. Children, particularly girls, share in the family's work from a young age. Place: Bikati, Butaritari, Kiribati, 2006.

[9] Figure: 8. The ocean side of the island – few houses are built here as traditionally this is the side of the spirits. Place: Bikati, Butaritari, Kiribati, 2006.

[10] Figure: 9. An evening's bingo session on the island of Beru. Evening is the time for games of all sorts, before the evening bathe. Place: Beru, Kiribati, 2008.

[11] Figure: 10. An open fire and a solar powered fluorescent tube coexist in this compound. The kitchen and cooking is the women's domain. The diet is limited and supplemented with imported rice. Place: Abemama, Kiribati, 2005.

[12] Figure: 11. Wells provide access to a lens of potable rain water lying on top of sea water. Place: Bikati, Butaritari, Kiribati, 2006

[13] Figure: 12. A picnic with families that had been involved in our research. Place: Roteariki Islet, Butaritari, Kiribati, 2008.

[14] Figure: 13. Making the essential string, te koro, from the interior of the coconut husk. Place: Abaiang, Kiribati, 2006.

[15] Figure: 14. On urban South Tarawa women sell fish. Place: Bikenibeu, South Tarawa, Kiribati, 2006.

[16] Figure: 15. A traditional compound. All the necessary materials for its construction are found nearby. Place: Beru, Kiribati, 2008.

[17] Figure: 16. The coconut tree provides the necessities of life – drink, food, a source of vitamin C, copra, wood and fronds to be woven into numerous types of mat. Place: Bikati, Butaritari, Kiribati, 2006.

[18] Figure: 17. Making the headdress te etete. The artefacts of dance are skilfully and ingeniously produced by the women of the village. Place: South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1980.

[19] Figure: 18. A man's dancing belt, te nuota, is made from the hair of the women in his family. In this case, the women not only make the artefact but provide the material for its construction. Place: Abemama, Kiribati, 1999.

[20] Figure: 19. Plants such as the coconut palm and its fruit, the pandanus tree and a range of local flowers are drawn into the complex and ancient methods of costume preparation. Place: South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999.

[21] Figure: 20. Making a black dancing skirt. Peeled and sun dried coconut fronds are painstakingly soaked in a mixture of sour toddy and a variety of roots; when black, the skirt is smoked over a low fire. Place: Abemama, Kiribati, 1999.

[22] Figure: 21. Weaving a man's dancing matt from finely cut, dried and beaten pandanus leaves. Place: Abemama, Kiribati, 1999.

[23] Figure: 22. Te nuota– the man's belt made from the hair of a female relative, being readied for use. Place: Abemama, Kiribati, 1999.

[24} Figure: 23. The man's dancing mat, te kabae, is tied firmly into place with his belt, te nuota. Place: Abemama, Kiribati, 1999.

[25] Figure: 24. The men's dancing belts are of great symbolic and spiritual importance. Hair acquired from others was once used in magic incantations. Place: Abemama, Kiribati, 1999.

[26] Figure: 25. Burenneita Mwaneaba at Eita village on Tabiteuea North. The mwaneaba is central to the I-Kiribati way of life defining, maintaining and reflecting attitudes to spirituality, age, hierarchy, community, patterns of expression and hospitality. Place: Eita, Tabiteuea North, Kiribati, 2008.

[27] Figure: 26. The ancient dances of Kiribati still maintain a vital role in the countries culture. These young girls step forward embraced by the past and loved for the continuity they will provide for the future. Place: Abemama, Kiribati, 1999.

[28] Figure: 27. The strength of the massive structure depends upon wooden pins, well fitting joints and the use of string, te kora, made from the coconut husk using sophisticated knots and lashing patterns. Place: Beru, Kiribati, 2008.

[29] Figure: 28. There are three basic types of traditional mwaneaba: Tabontebike, Tabiang and Maungatabu. The principal difference between each style is in the proportions of length to width and details in relation to the figure and positioning of the supporting beams. Place: Koinawa, Abaiang, Kiribati, 2009.

[30] Figure: 29. Te mwaneaba is the site of significant social activities such as traditional dance. It is a place of dignity and formality. The bones of a previous great leader, Kourabi, are hung in a cask in te mwaneaba at Atanikarawa on Tabiteuea North. Place: Atanikarawa, Tabiteuea North, Kiribati, 2009.

[31] Figure: 30. In te mwaneaba village decisions are made by unimwane, the elders, whose seating positions declare their authority and status within the community. Place: Atanikarawa, Tabiteuea North, Kiribati, 2009.

[32] Figure: 31. The building relies upon the contribution of the whole village for string, thatch, tree cutting, weaving and general work although the production of the materials is mainly done by the women and the construction by men. Place: Abaiang, Kiribati, 2009.

[33] Figure: 32. Preparing a te buki skirt. Te buki is one of a rich variety of dances, both sitting and standing, each with their particular format, costumes, sequence and songs. Place: Abatoa, North Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999.

[34] Figure: 33. Adjusting te tumara, a belt made of large white shells. Place: Abemama, Kiribati, 1999.

[35] Figure: 34. The dramatic standing dance is te buki uses a heavy skirt made from dried coconut fronds. Place: Abatoa, North Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999.

[36] Figure: 35. Te buki is only performed by women who, with great skill, flick the voluminous and heavy skirt from one side of the head to the other. Place: Abatoa, North Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999.

[37] Figure: 36. Two distinctive features of te buki are te katio – the flicking of the skirt over the head from one side to the other and te karae – the swivelling hip movement common to many I-Kiribati dances, which is achieved by the movement of the legs bent at the knees. Place: Bairiki, South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1980.

[38] Figure: 37. Preparation is the liminal phase of the ritual process of te mwaie – this young dancer is dressed and decorated with care and encouragement by her mother and female relatives. Place: South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999.

[39] Figure: 38. Last minute preparations before dancing in te mwaneaba. Parents believe strongly in the importance of dance and that children are taught and dressed properly for their performance. Place: South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999.

[40] Figure: 39. Teaching children traditional dance is seen as an expression of parental love and pride. Place: Betio, South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999.

[41] Figure: 40. The position of the head, eyes and arms must be precise in relation to one another, as must the angle of the body and the position of the legs. Place: Abatoa, North Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999.

[42] Figure: 41. The chorus provides the young dancers with support and encouragement as well as rhythmic excitement. Place: Abatoa, North Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999.

[43] Figure: 42. Dance is an emotional state for performer and observer, a state reached through a close connection with the artefacts involved in its performance. Place: Betio, South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1980.

[44] Figure: 43. A young girl is overcome by the emotion of the dance – her tears, cries and even collapse are understood and socially accepted. Place: Betio, South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999.

[45] Figure: 44. Dancing on the coconut mats requires a particular technique of toe and foot and results in a distinctive posture and movement. Place: South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999.

[46] Figure: 45. The young girl dancer is in the unusual position of being the centre of attention in te mwaneaba.Place: South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999.

[47] Figure: 46. The energy and creativity given to the construction of the artefacts associated with dance indicate its significance in the hard-won subsistence life of Kiribati society. Place: South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999.

[48] Figure: 47. The tension generated in a dance performance can be exquisite for both the performers and audience. Place: Bairiki, South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1980.

[49] Roota Mauri, Kiribati: Taborio School, North Tarawa, 1999.


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Original Tape Recording Transcriptions

All recordings, transcriptions and translations held by the author.

Mauri, Roota, Kiribati: Taborio School, North Tarawa, 1999.

Mea, Bishop Paul, Kiribati: Teaorereke, South Tarawa, 1999.

Mea, Bishop Paul, Kiribati, Teaoraereke, South Tarawa, 2004.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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