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Society and the Dance

Sue Jennings.


Temiar dance and the maintenance of order.



The trance dance

In complete contrast to the play dances are the more formal sessions of dancing and trancing that take place on a larger scale after detailed planning and organisation. Nevertheless there are some elements of play within the formal sessions just as the play sessions occasionally have some planning. The main difference lies in the seriousness of intention involved. I refer to the more serious sessions as 'trance dances'. Trance is a state of disassociation, often resulting in uncon­sciousness, and is a central feature of most of the Temiar seances. During trance or sleep, the Temiar believe that a person's head soul, located on the crown, is free to leave the body, and it leaves per­manently at death.

It was noticeable on many occasions while I was among the Temiar that the planned event would seem to be in response to a level of tension in the village. For example there would be anxiety after visits from outside: officials from, government departments, or the army on patrol for communist guerrillas. Should any of these officials stay in the village, the Temiar would often mount a formal dance, but it would differ from, the one they would perform after the officials had left. If the outsiders were staying, there would be an absence of serious trance. There would be serious dancing and singing and some playful trance organised by the shaman. The Temiar seances are famous in the area and beyond, and outsiders will ask for performances and sometimes join in. I attended one formal session that had just started when some passing Chinese loggers dropped by. The shaman dis­creetly switched gear for that evening and held his serious trance the following night.

On other occasions, when there appeared to be a general sense of irritability in the village and body movements that suggested greater social distance between villagers, one of the older men or women might suggest a trance dance for the same evening. This is an ordered society, where there are rules against conspicuous behaviour and shouting. There is no licence for aggression. The trance dance ap­peared to be the principal activity that could release any tension that might arise from these constraints.

The location of Temiar dance fits into their major conceptual categories concerning space. The Temiar have two major categories of space, the vertical in terms of 'off the ground'/'on the ground',, and the horizontal in terms of 'village' (or 'house')/'jungle'. Earlier I de­scribed how Temiar children are not allowed on the ground until they can walk independently; they must stay off the ground, in the house. These spatial categories permeate most of Temiar conceptual organ­isation. Thus Temiar houses are built in the village and on stilts off the ground. By contrast, temporary shelters built in the jungle, if men stay overnight on a hunting expedition, are on the ground. Most animals that are hunted and killed in the jungle are transformed in some way, such as having the skin burnt off, before being brought into the village, and must then immediately be taken into a house off the ground and stay there. Any waste will be burnt in the house on the fire. It would seem that on the ground and in the jungle belong to the world of nature, and off the ground and in the village or house belong to the world of culture.

Dance and trance belong to the cultural world in terms of their location, and would thus not occur on the ground. The only occasion I witnessed when a group of women danced amid giggles on the ground was when they wanted me to show them an English dance. On another occasion, when some officials tried to encourage a Temiar get-together, they made the mistake of organising it in an open space outside. There was a little desultory singing, which eventually petered out, and even those Temiar attracted by the free food returned to their homes.

Although singing can take place in anyone's house there is usually one house in the village where dancing occurs. If the village is a single longhouse with discreet family units, these are built round a large central area where dancing takes place. Where a village is made up of separate houses, it is usually the house with the largest central area that is used for dancing. They make sure that the supports un­derneath the house are strong enough for what will be an energetic session. Floors have been known to give way and the proceedings stopped while reinforcements were made. The floor is made of slatted bamboo, which gives a yielding surface for dancing.

It is the women and children who are involved in fetching the leaves and foliage to make the decorations for the session. This usually happens in the morning, the rest of the day being spent in preparing the decorations for the evening. The men will assist in hanging them from the roof inside but the shaman will hang up the central deco­ration, which he will use ritually. The women weave headdresses from palm and sometimes include flowers or make separate circlets f marigolds. These are only worn by men. Women wear just a single flower in their hair. On the most elaborate occasions, palm and other sorts of leaves are hung at frequent intervals and the centre-piece is either a bunch of leaves or a circlet of rattan from which leaves are hung. Apart from the headdresses, the women split the palm to make fans that the shaman will use and on some occasions large bunches of palm that the men will tuck into the backs of their sarongs. Most villages have a constant supply of bamboo stompers with which rhythms are beaten, but these are checked for cracks and new ones cut if necessary. A banana log is put in place for the musicians to stomp their rhythm. The more formal the occasion, the more dressing up in terms of clean sarongs and elaborate face paint for the women. The final preparation is the rolling of cigarettes from Temiar home­grown tobacco in special leaves. These are placed on a tray and on some occasions there is a dish of charcoal with aromatic plants near the fire.

Dancing takes place at night, commencing after dusk and some­times continuing until dawn but never into daytime. There are few Temiar who do not dance. The exceptions appear to be the older people of both sexes, although older women often join in for a short time. Certain categories of shaman who would not use dance in their special seances still dance in ordinary sessions like everyone else. Pregnancy is not a bar to dance, providing the mother is well. How­ever, the sections of the community who are allowed to trance are far more limited. Parents of young children, midwives and prepub-ertal boys and girls do not normally trance. These are precisely the social categories whose freedom is restricted in other ways, for in­stance with reference to the food taboos and the naming system that differentiates them from others.

An earlier style of dance is occasionally practised by one or two older women in a corner or even in a separate room from the main seance. The shape of the body and positioning of the limbs are rem­iniscent of Indian classical dance. The feet stay apart in one position with the weight being transferred from one foot to the other while the arms undulate and the wrists circle, following the weight of the body from one side to the other.

This contrasts with the contemporary dance movement, which is based on a simple walking pattern, with some variation by men and women. One foot steps forward, transferring the body weight on to it; the second foot is placed alongside the first foot and at the same time the person gives a slight spring forward. This step-spring pattern is repeated with alternate feet leading. Variations can include a small jump emphasising the movement towards the floor rather than away from, it, or a forward movement with both feet sliding together.

The dancers initially form a single group, moving in a counter­clockwise direction, though there may be some variation as they turn slightly outwards from the circle and then inwards by the same amount.

Women usually dance with their torsos upright, their hands by their sides, whereas the men bend forward ninety degrees from the waist as they spring, each arm alternately extending forward, parallel with the floor. This is the basic movement pattern used by most people in the dance. The grouping may change at the onset of trance and there may be a breakdown in movement and grouping as sometimes occurs with the wilder trancing among younger people.

To the onlooker, the Temiar appears to be divided at the waist into the upper and lower body. This is partially because they wear a sarong that is tied at the waist with the chest left bare unless a T-shirt is worn. It is also reinforced in movement where the lower body is used to support or propel and the main movement activity takes place in the upper body, in the arms and head and bending of the waist (which becomes more vigorous when trancing),

In the old-style dance described previously, the feet stayed in one place and all movement is in the upper half of the body. Once again, this appears to reflect the dichotomy, at a symbolic level, between on and off the ground: dance movements are constrained in the lower body 'on the ground', and tend to allow greater freedom of expression and focus of interest in the upper body 'off the ground'. It belongs to the village and to culture.

Usually, a formal dance session leads into trance, otherwise it is little more than a play dance. Once trancing has taken place, however, then dancing without trancing may well fill the rest of the night. The following is a description of a typical trance dance.

A sense of expectation builds up throughout the day as the prep­aration and decorations near completion. Once darkness falls there is a feeling of urgency to get started. Most of the village will be present and any visitors from other villages who have heard about it or are passing through. They all assemble in the main dancing area and the women, often with babies slung across their backs, take up a position sitting or squatting behind the banana log. There is a settling down period while they get in sequence, beating out a steady rhythm.

The shaman who is going to lead the proceedings squats in the centre and starts to sing. He is echoed in response by the women playing the bamboo stompers. The fire is dampened down, the chil­dren are hushed, the chatter dies away, and as everyone watches, Sue Jennings

the only illumination is from the kerosene wick. The shaman sings to make contact with his spirit guide, who will assist him in the seance, and to coax the small shy sprites on to the roof of the house, or even to come down to the central leaf decoration. As the singing builds up, the shaman stands and holds on to this centre-piece, through which the power from the spirits can enter him. He is thought to catch it in his palm in the form of a fluid, which he can then use to transmit their good influence. At this point he enters a light trance but is still in complete control of the proceedings.

Men of all ages get up and make a big circle round the shaman, and with the walking step described above, accent the rhythm in their movements. The women play the stampers and increase the intensity of their singing. Those not involved in the music watch and discuss the dancers, sometimes giggling though not loudly. Boys dance with the men, and girls either help with the stampers or sit with their friends. In the shadows, younger people may use the opportunity to flirt as in a play dance until the trancing becomes serious.

The shaman tries to control the development of the session, re­straining those who fall into trance too soon so that there can be a slow build-up to a climax by the group as a whole. As he allows the intensity to increase, so the women respond. The rhythm and singing become louder and the dancing starts to get faster; soon some people start to trance spontaneously, those who are not going to trance stand­ing to one side, as do the young boys. The circle breaks up and those already in trance start bouncing round the floor in their own circle. The shaman gives attention to those who are not in trance, and either flicks water with his fan, presses their chest or puts his forehead against theirs, and soon everyone left in the centre is bouncing, twirl­ing and spinning; their arms flay, and they may overbalance and fall over. The onlookers are intrigued, elated, scared and even amused. They step to one side to avoid being hit by a flailing limb while assisting anyone who might overbalance. If the trancing is very cha­otic, the musicians break up and move away until the proceedings have calmed down. In contrast the older men are unobtrusively fan­ning themselves and gently moving backwards and forwards into a trance state, which they achieve with minimum movement compared wih the vigorous efforts required by younger people. Whether tranc­ing, dancing, or just watching, the entire house is involved in this highly charged and energetic experience.

Some of the entranced sink unconscious to the floor, others spon­taneously recover. The shaman watches those in trance intently and gives attention to those who are unconscious by massaging their heads, or blowing through a clenched fist into their head soul. As they slowly emerge from the trance, looking dazed and disorientated, cigarettes are placed in their mouths. Often the shaman or one of the elderly women bathes them in smoke from a dish containing burning charcoal and aromatic herbs. During the evening, the shaman may attend to any illnesses; other shamans may take a session and also heal. Sometimes there is a break in the proceedings while everyone smokes cigarettes before getting a second wind.

The observer senses that the entire group has been involved in an experience that is essentially Temiar, whether in trance or not, binding the participants together into a whole, composed of many contrasting elements. They see their trance dance as an event that cannot be shared with non-Temiar. It is felt to be a serious matter that would not be understood by foreigners. I, too, was not allowed into these more serious sessions until 1 was fluent in the language, and together with my three children had been adopted as Temiar in one particular village.

The trance dance is the most common form of seance. After the men's trance, there may be a women's trance, although far fewer women trance than men because of the taboos. The rest of the evening can be spent in singing, dancing, and light trancing. Sometimes the children get up and caricature the adults, exaggerating their falling movements and so on. Normally Temiar prefer to sleep in their own quarters as a family unit, but after a trance dance many do not bother to return to their own houses. They curl up on the floor in their sarongs, remaining in the company of fellow Temiar and close to the benevolent influence of the spirits. They are at peace. As the excite­ment gradually diminishes, someone will continue singing until they are all asleep.

In the majority of the seances that I witnessed the focal point of the evening was the scene I have just described, with the men in­volved in the dancing and trancing and the women in the singing and rhythm. Other writers have reported regional variations and there appears to be less sexual division in the trance in those villages lying further south (Benjamin 1968:244; Dentan 1968:89).

Shamans can practise their healing skills at any time, informally in a person's house, or as an adjunct to the play or more formal dance and trance sessions. However, there is a special form of seance that a shaman will organise if there is severe or chronic illness. It is char­acterised as the occasion where the shaman himself will perform a stylised dance round the patient while everyone else is inactive but watching intently. People gather in the main dancing room with all

the decorations, sometimes travelling from other villages. The shaman opens the seance by singing and then invites the patients to lie in the centre of the room under the cluster of leaves. Through singing and movement the shaman himself goes into trance and starts to dance slowly round the patient, using elongated walks and angular arm gestures, touching the edges of the sick person's body with his whisk. Then he starts work on the offending area and massages it while muttering incantations. He noisily sucks through a loosely clenched fist to bring out whatever is causing the trouble; sometimes he opens his hand and shows actual objects, for example pebbles, or a snail-shell, making sure that the patient and onlookers can see. Sometimes there is in fact no object there, but either way he goes through the same process and disposes of the offending substance outside the door of the hut. Then he milks his own breast on his left side with his right hand and blows through a clenched fist into the same area. The most spectacular device is when the shaman can produce an actual flow of juice from the central decorative leaves with which he bathes the patient. Usually an important healing session of this kind leads on to a dance session, and while people are dancing the shaman sees to any minor ills.

During the healing sessions, the shaman does not always trance. I was told that he needs to go into trance when the patient's own head soul is very weak so that the shaman's head soul can find that of the patient and presumably strengthen it. For minor ailments in the village, the shaman uses the technique of sucking and blowing but does not embroider it with dancing, trancing, or singing.

At the end of a mourning period there is also a special seance before the village returns to normal life. During the mourning there is no dancing or singing, no wearing of new clothes, little moving in and out of the village. The seance lasts for at least three nights. On the first night there is a special meal, and new sarongs are given to those who are not of the village and not connected with the deceased. Relatives still wear the old clothes that they wore throughout the mourning period. After the gifts and the presentation, the shaman leads the singing and asks the dead spirit to leave them in peace and not to bother them. The songs are all sung in a minor key and are considered the most beautiful of Temiar music. Close relatives spon­taneously trance and express strong emotion, stumbling and calling out. There is no dancing on the first evening. Subsequent evenings follow the pattern of the planned dance and trance sessions, everyone wearing their better clothes and thus completing the transition back to ordinary life.

The Temiar explain their trance with relation to their concept of the head soul, which is more important to them than 'souls' associated with other parts of their body. Babies are seen as having weak, un­formed head souls, which is why their heads are constantly protected and massaged. As well as the notion that babies must not go on the ground until they can walk because the ground is dirty, there is also the idea that by leaving the house the baby's head soul could be endangered. As a child matures and its range of forbidden food de­creases, the head soul is seen as becoming stronger. During times of illness, the head soul is felt to be in danger, and finally it leaves the body altogether at death. During trance or sleep, the head soul is thought to go on a journey and meet other head souls. If someone takes time to come round from a trance, the shaman will say that he has to send his own head soul to find it. The reason given for for­bidding photographs during trance is that the bright light might wake a trancer while he or she is without head soul, and it might then not have time to return to the trancer's body. This appears, however, to be an aspect of a general unease regarding photography during a state of ritual danger. After childbirth, for instance, there is a general ban on photography until the food taboos are relaxed and also at times when mother or child are unwell. It is consistent with this cluster of beliefs that trance is held to be dangerous for younger children, who should not risk losing their weak head souls. Even their parents should avoid trance and the associated risk to their children's head souls.

It would not be appropriate here to develop an exposition of Temiar shamanism in all its complexity. Interested readers should refer to the analysis by Benjamin (1968:ch.5). However, it is important to clarify the relationship between the shaman and the dance and trance. Although the Temiar do not have a notion of he adman ship, it is obvious to the observer that the shaman is in control of the seances, and is referred to for advice and healing powers outside the context of the seance. The shaman, as well as having skills of healing, can be seen as the mediator between people and the world of danger. He is responsible, with the aid of his spirit helpers, for the loss and recovery of head souls in the seance, which is, as we have seen, a state of great ritual danger. Men become shamans by dreaming about their spirit guides. The Temiar differentiate between greater shamans and lesser shamans by whether their spirit guide belongs to 'on the ground' (lesser) or 'off the ground' (greater) categories.

Just as the shaman is the mediator through whom ordinary mortals 'fix' the psychic world of their head souls, so the river is the mediator through which the Temiar fix themselves in their physical world. If one takes a Temiar away from the river he becomes disorientated in space and he becomes anxious. When talking about where people are, for example, he will use river terms to give a sense of direction - 'up-river', 'down-river', 'across river'. All Temiar villages are built on the banks of rivers and of course the river is the main line of communication between villages. People will travel out of preference on the river rather than take dangerous routes through the jungle. Whole families will travel quite freely on the river where they would not in the jungle. One must remember that fish from the river is the one food everyone can eat.

An analogy may be perceived between the communication link in the physical world and the physical resource that the river provides, and the communication link in the metaphysical world and the psychic resource that the shaman provides. Both constitute a cosmological anomaly. The river is both of the village and of the jungle in that it flows close to both; and it is neither quite on the ground nor off the ground, but somewhere in between. Similarly, the shaman is tied to the village through his body like other men, and yet he has the ability to visit distant places through his control over trance. It is this element of ritual control that places him slightly apart from other men, and" the more powerful he is as a shaman, the greater this difference. Ordinary people enter the realm mediated by the shaman at times of life crisis, and also through dancing, when they can enter into trance. Thus dance is an activity that in itself bridges the gulf between the physical world, to which the body is tied, and the metaphysical, through which the head soul is released. The contrast in movement between the lower and upper body in dance has its counterpart in cosmological beliefs.

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