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Alex: Sasa

September 28, 2011

Last Friday me and a group of my peers performed a Samoan sasa led by a renown Samoan dance instructor.

I’m taking a class on Pacific art. Every week, more or less, we cover a different art form: weaving, bark cloth, carving, tattoo, etc. Last week was dance. We had our lecture in the campus fale, because presumably there was going to be some sort of demonstration. The first hour plodded along, with our guest lecturer talking about the importance of preserving traditional dances and whatnot. Then as the second hour started he told us to push the chairs to the sides of the room and to choose a spot on the floor to sit.

I am terrified of dancing. I’m not good at it. I’m white as can be, I’m awkward and uncoordinated and my sense of timing is sub-par at best. But my hope was that sitting would limit the potential for me to embarrass myself utterly, since only half my body would be able to be awkward and uncoordinated. But I had no idea what a sasa was, and I had no idea what I might be in for.

So I sat on the floor and prepared for the worst. I was relieved to find out that sasa is a Samoan clap dance. I may not be able to dance, but I can clap with the best of them. Slowly he taught us the moves, making us do them slowly at first, and stringing together longer and longer sequences of claps, ground slaps and various hand and arm movements.

Then we put it all together, and a simple string of claps and slaps became something else entirely. Our instructor/leader was drumming with two wooden sticks on the back of a plastic chair, but as soon as he started counting us in in Samoan, for all I knew that plastic chair was a centuries-old Samoan instrument–I was swept away.

As we slapped our knees to the beat that he kept on his chair-drum he started shouting things–things in Samoan that I didn’t understand, things that the Samoan students in the room knew exactly what to do with. They were calls, calls which were answered in the most energetic and invigorating way possible. It charged the whole huge open-air fale with energy. It got me excited to dance. It got me excited to be a part of this group that had from which I could learn.

In that moment, all of us clapping in time, Samoan calls and answers lighting up the room, I felt totally connected to those people–people that I don’t even really know. In that moment, the movements mattered so much less than that group of people–that wonderful environment. That’s not to say that the moves fell by the wayside. If anything, I was inspired by this almost magical sasa energy to perform the best sasa a white boy from Wisconsin had ever performed.

That energy stuck with me. The rest of that day, I could not get that plastic-chair-beat out of my head. I can still hear those calls and answers in my head. Sometimes, in the moments when I am falling asleep, I feel that collective energy surge through me and I feel as if I may never need to sleep again.
Post script: Here is a link to a sasa performed at Polyfest, which is a huge Polynesian dance competition held in Auckland every year. The one we performed was considerably less complex, but hopefully this will give you some idea.
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