THE ARTS IN YAPESE SOCIETY
It begins with a thunderous clap, repeated over and over by a line of solemn dancers until a simple rhythm is firmly established.
From the center of the line a solitary voice emits a powerful rasping wall introducing a story told in a forgotten tongue. The hypnotic sound of the wailer’s voice floats out across the earthen dance amphitheater with its ancient, ceremonial stone seats and Backrests and over the moonlit sea. All within hearing range are captivated, transported through time to a mystical bygone era. Suddenly the single voice is joined by a tnighty, reverberating Chorus of voices bellowing and ancient chant – the dance is joined.
Yap’s most highly developed art form, dance, or “Churu” is a central pari of the State’s culture. Ultirnately, Yapese dancing is a form of storytelling and oral history. There are four main types: Sitting, Standing, Marching and Bamboo. Traditionally, dances are segregated by sex, although in recent years bamboo dances have been performed jointly by men and warnen. Bamboo and Standing dances are particularly taxing physically and are usually reserved for the young.
Dances often tell the stories of canoes, or conquest, and more recendy, religious events. Many dances are laced with double meanings and some, such as die “Gaslew”, a dance for men that women are forbidden to watch, are quite bawdy. (Of course, if warnen didn’t manage to watch the “Gaslew”, chances are the young men would have given this type of dance up lang ago!) One intriguing kind of dance that is not as frequently performed anymore is the “Tayor”, which is performed by women at multi-village celebrations called “Guywol.”
Dancing is an interactive sport in Yap, with the observers playing the role of coaches and critics. Old men or women usually occupy the choicest seats and are merciless in their criticism – exhorting the dancer to get down lower in the painful crouch that is their primary stance or to make sure their eyes follow the rhythm of the dance. Given the intense scrutiny, dancers often practice, by the light of the moon, for up to a year before a major performance.
Dancers wear beautiful costumes, like multicolored hibiscus skirts, and ornamental head-dress, and cover their bodies with flowers, coconut oil and yellow turmeric powder prior to performing.
Until the twentieth century, many Yapese and Outer Islanders decorated their bodies with intricate tattoo patterns. Three distinctive types (“Yol,” “Gachow.” and “Salbachag”) were used to designate high status, expertise in fighting, or simply personal preferences. The process of tattooing the legs or full body involved a great deal of pain as soot was burned into the body to make the exquisite designs.
There are still tattoo masters the Outer Islands, and, while full body tattoos are increas-ingly rare, more than a few Yapese and Outer Islanders have local tattoos of popular images like dolphins or birds an their torso.
Baskets, jewelry, grass skirts, and carvings are among Yap’s most popular handicrafts. The most common baskets are those for carrying betel nut and babies. In Yap proper, men’s betel nut baskets, called “Waay”, are often shaped like half moons. Baskets from the Outer Islands are more rectangular in shape, with rounded edges.Women’s baskets are made of pandanas or palm leaves and come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Often, women’s baskets are multicolored or decorated with shells.
Early anthropologists reported many types of jewelry which are no longer made today. Most modern jewelry cornes from turtle and ocean shells. Traditional wooden combs and bracelets are made, as well as earrings and necklaces.
Carved replicas of canoes and wooden statues are still produced els Yap proper and in the Outer Islands. Other popular handicrafts include hibiscus and cloth lavalavas from the Outer Islands and replicas of shell money. Pottery used to be a highly developed art in Yap, but the skill has been lost in recent years.