Yap Day on the Yap Islands, Micronesia: Dancing Toward Tradition

Yap Day

Map of Country

Figure 1: A Map of the Yap portion of the Micronesian Islands ( www.mantaray.com ).

 

Abstract

Yap Day, which occurs during the first week of March on the Island of Yap in Micronesia , is a celebration of dance and competition. Performers practice all year long for the dances which tell the stories of the history of Yap and its legends. Competitions in various common Yapese practices, such as spear throwing and basket weaving, are also common. This celebration symbolizes the most important elements of the Yapese culture: dance, history, competition, and togetherness.

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Additional Image 1   Additional Image 2

Figure 2:  Yapese citizens performing the “sitting dance”

(http://www.intangible.org/Features/micronesia/text/Yap5.html )

Figure 3: Young Yapese girls participating in a basket weaving contest (http://www.intangible.org/Features/micronesia/text/Yap5.html).

Introduction

Yap Day is a celebration of traditional Yapese culture through dance. During Yap Day, many traditional dances are performed which tell stories of the Yapese people as well as ancient cultural myths (Coulter 1957). These dances are important to the Yapese people, who practice all throughout the year to prepare for them ( Anderson ). Also, during the Yap Day festivities, many outstanding Yapese citizens are recognized. There are competitions for the best traditional house, best locally grown produce, and best traditional tattoo, among others (Anderson, Beardsley). Overall, Yap Day is a culmination of celebrating the old Yapese culture of dance and contemporary Yapese crafts.

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Context of Micronesia

Micronesia is a group of 607 islands spread out around the eastern Pacific Ocean . There are four main island nation groups: Yap , Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae. Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae are all volcanically formed islands, while Yap is a raised portion of the Asian continental shelf ( www.lonelyplanet.com ). The soil on the islands is very fertile, which promotes a lot of vegetation. However, there are not very many species of animals that inhabit the islands.

  The climate of the islands is tropical and oceanic. The average temperature is consistently 80°F with about 80% humidity. Rain is very prevalent in the islands, some getting as much as 120 to 150 inches per year. Typhoons are a major threat, especially to the Yap areas (Mason 277-8).

  The Micronesian Islands have a long history documented through oral accounts. It has been said that the islands have been inhabited since between 4000 and 2000 B.C. The islands were used as a stopping point during travel through the Pacific Ocean for many years by explorers. It was not until 1817 when geographers actually started charting the territories ( www.lonelyplanet.com ). Spain , Germany , the United Kingdom , Japan , and the United States all claimed portions of the islands during this period. Spain gave up its share of the islands first. During World War I the Japanese forced Germany to release their territories; after World War II , Japan gave up their land (Mason 281). Now, the islands are under their own government but are loosely associated with the United States . They do most of their trading with the United States and Japan .

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Origins of Yap Day

The Yapese have been celebrating with dance since before their documented history began. However, there is no clear information about when Yap Day actually became a ritualistic celebration.

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Performance

There are two major types of dance that the Yapese do, both of which tell stories in subtle ways which are noticeable only to the trained eye. One dance is called the “sitting dance”, where the hand movements are very important (see Figure 2). The other dance is the stick dance, or “gamel”, in which the Yapese dance to the beat of bamboo sticks being beaten together (Coulter 1957). Displays showing fresh produce are set up around the dance area. Children participate in various competitions to see who is the best at spear-throwing, fishing and craft-making (see Figure 3). The dancers wear colorful grass skirts (see Figure 4) that are intricately handmade by the village women (Beardsley). Dances are always performed in groups, never as individuals, which show the strong communitas of the culture.

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Artifact

Figure 4: Yapese dancers performing the opening dance in their handmade grass skirts ( http://www.intangible.org/Features/micronesia/text/Yap5.html ).

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Interpretation

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Prognosis for Yap Day

The celebration of Yap Day is gradually increasing in popularity from people outside the country, due to the fact that it was recently opened to the public (Anderson). In 1973, William Howells wrote that “ Micronesia generates little public excitement,” (1973 Howells). Recently, according to travel websites, the first week of March (when Yap Day falls each year) is a prime time to visit the island now ( www.lonelyplanet.com ). However, Yap Day will most likely not become a widely recognized holiday around the world.

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Conclusion

Yap Day is a culmination of several things that are very important in the Yapese culture: dance, history, competition, and togetherness. In Yapese culture, dance is used to mark major occasions in the society and individual lives. The dances that are performed on Yap Day are special because they illustrate the history of the island, which is important to the Yapese people. The many competitions that are held throughout the celebration represent the competition and desire to be the best that are found in everyday Yapese life. Finally, togetherness and communitas are fostered by the entire Yap Day celebration by bringing together all of the citizens to participate in the things that are important in their culture.

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Internet References Cited

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Peer-Reviewed References Cited

  • Coulter, John Wesley.

    1957 The Pacific Dependencies of the United States . Macmillan , New York .   

     

    Dorson, Richard M.

    1982 Material Components in Celebration .

     

    Howells, William.

    1973 The Pacific Islanders. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York .

     

    Mason, Leonard.

    1968 The Ethnology of Micronesia . Peoples and Cultures of the Pacific . pp. 275-239. Ed. Andrew P. Vayda. Natural History Press, New York .

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