Feel the rhythm of Guam’s traditional chamorro dance
As the opening chords of “O Saina” are proudly played on the guitar by a member of a Chamorro dance company, the performers sing to the Chamorro ancestors to bless them, moving their arms gracefully and reverently to the words of the song. It is a moving performance that is presented 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 features more indigenous dances throughout the evening performed by one of the Pa’a Taotao Tano cultural house coalition groups, or Gumas.
In recent decades, the indigenous dance of the Chamorro people has grown in popularity under the leadership of chiefs Gumas and Guma, known as fafa’na’gue. Dances unique to the Chamorro culture are performed around the world at international dance competitions and showcases, and tourists come to Guam from far and wide to watch the beautiful dance. Without the work of dedicated artists and scholars seeking to reclaim their original culture, indigenous Chamorro dance would not exist today.
Francisco “Frank” Rabon, founder of the dance group Taotao’ Tano, is recognized for the revival of indigenous Chamorro dance. Originally a dancer of Polynesian styles, Rabon was asked to choreograph a presentation that would showcase Guam at the 1985 Festival of Pacific Arts. Rabon was inspired by the idea of Chamorro indigenous identity and experimented with different dance forms, drawing on historical documents and dances from other Pacific islands.
Prior to Rabon’s work, the dances of the ancient Chamorro people were not recorded very well, if at all. Several historical records written by early explorers who traveled to the Marianas vaguely described the dances performed during the 1600s and 1800s. Dances performed by the Chamorros throughout the period of Spanish colonization included the bailan ha’iguas and the bailan pailitu. These dances were accompanied by typical Spanish or Mexican music and songs with Chamorro lyrics.
After the Spanish-American War, when Guam became a colony of the United States, popular dances of the time reflected the Americanization of the island. In the late 1800s, big band music became popular, and Chamorro dancers performed waltz, ragtime, and clapper styles. After World War II, the cha-cha and jitterbug became popular and dances performed during the Spanish period became “traditional” dances.
Rabon studied historical documents to recreate the ancient life of the Chamorros through dance. The dances created by Rabon were unique to the island and formed the basis for transmitting the Chamorro dance to the next generation of dancers. Although Rabon never claimed to authenticate the dances performed before the Chamorros were colonized by Spain and America, he sought to give the Chamorros a sense of identity and pride in their heritage.
Today, there are Gumas who teach Chamorro dance all over the world. They dance in Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, California and 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.
Each year, the coalition of dance groups, Pa’a Taotao’ Tano come together to celebrate their heritage and unique indigenous dance at the Dinana’ Minagof festivals and competitions held several times a year by the Gef Pa’go Chamorro Cultural Village in ‘Inarajan and Pa ‘a Taotao Tano’.
To see a performance of a dozen Gumas in Guam, you can go to the annual village festivals, one of the annual dance competitions, or to Chamorro Village on a Wednesday night for the night market.