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[D a n c e r s by John Henry Fleming]

It is said that the Lakas are natural dancers because when they walk from hut to hut or village to village they must spin, shuffle, and slide over treacherous, cliff-hugging paths and the knife-sharp rocks that stipple their jagged island. So rarely do the Lakas encounter flat earth that when they do their knees bow and their feet roll over onto their ankles and their torsos sway and totter until they finally collapse to the dirt and struggle for hours to regain their feet, like turtles flipped on their backs. The skips and twists in the Lakas' walk form a kind of dance, and one they must learn early or else risk tumbling down spiked hillsides into the gnashing surf. But that is only part of it. For the Lakas, all life is a dance, one to be shaped and practiced until it achieves a form so marvelous and real it will survive its dancer.

Every important event in a Laka's life gets expressed in a common language of dance steps. Because of this, a Laka may recall his entire life by joining these steps into one continuous life-dance. The dance embodies the history and personality of its dancer, so much so that Lakas make no real distinction between a person and his dance. If several Lakas long for the company of an absent friend, they may elect someone to perform part of their friend's life dance. Then, magically, the performer seems transformed into the friend. This little ceremony brings comfort to the families and friends of loved ones on long journeys and those who've passed away. It brings back ancestors for the delight of descendants who never knew them and raises long-dead chiefs, whose dance steps still edify and inspire.

A Laka's dancing life begins when its first step is recorded in front of the entire village. The child's father holds its arms while music is played, speeches are made, and fires burn at the cardinal points, the shadows creating new geometries on the rocky earth. Finally, haltingly, the child lifts a knee and steps into a life of dance.

"Let the dance begin!" shouts the village chief.

"And let the dance be named Rabu!" shout the child's parents, announcing for the first time the name of their child--and his dance.

As the child grows older, his life-dance grows longer and more complex. When he travels, he will add movements to recount each of the islands and peoples he visits. When he marries, a great ceremony will be held in which bride and groom adopt one dance step from each other's life dance, the more sentimental couples choosing each other's first step to signify a new beginning. If the child is foolish enough to grow into a criminal, his crimes, too, will be recorded in the life dance. And the dance steps for crimes are not ones that any dancer would choose to perform: the dance step for stealing is to spank yourself repeatedly on the bare buttocks, and the dance step for adultery is to lie across jagged rocks while others walk over your back.

When a Laka dies, his life dance is performed by friends and relatives in a funeral ceremony that can take hours, with mourners bursting into tears as the dance recalls for them the poignant moments of the deceased's life, though the mourners take solace in knowing that the deceased's life dance lives on, and that a Laka is never really dead until his life dance is forgotten, which may take several generations or more, depending on the respect and affection he generated and the skill with which he danced.

This is the reason the Lakas are such perfectionists. If they wish their dance to survive them, they'd better make it memorable, and a memorable dance must have both interesting choreography and skillful dancing.

The choreography of every Laka's dance is determined solely by the important events in his life. For this reason, the Lakas often seem to base their life decisions purely on the dance steps that will follow. They'll visit a certain island just to add that island's dance step to their own dance. They'll build a new hut just to add the building-a-hut step to their dance. They have even been known to trip and fall on purpose, breaking an arm just to add the wrist-swinging, thigh-slapping motion of an arm-break to their dance. When spouses fight, they accuse each other of marrying them solely to steal their dance step.

This is how the Lakas give shape to their lives and why, for them, every life event is experienced not just for its own sake but also for the sake of its effect on their dance. Some would say that the Lakas' real living takes place only when they dance, so that for them life and art are reversed, and living is worthwhile mainly for the life it brings to art. But perhaps this is the price they must pay to fulfill for their deepest desire: that upon their deaths they will have shaped their lives into a dance so inspiring and beautiful that future generations will long to dance in their steps, bringing them back to life, leap by leap, spin by spin.

* * * * * * * *

John Henry Fleming is the author of a novel, The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman (Faber & Faber). His short stories have appeared in McSweeney's, Rosebud, The North American Review, and Ducky. He teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida and is a research associate at the Center for Fictional Anthropology (CFA).

Contact John Henry Fleming: JohnHenryFleming@cs.com

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David Eide
© 2004 David Eide. All rights reserved.