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Spirit of the Islands at Montana Western

UMW News Bureau

The University of Montana Western Polynesian Club presented "Spirit of the Islands," three authentic Maori, Polynesian, Fijian, Hawaiian, Samoan and Tongan dance performances on Dec. 2 and 4, 2009. The Maori dance performances were under the direction of New Zealand natives Robin and Chanelle Casey who were in Dillon, Mont. on a seven-week residency.
Robin and Chanelle Casey
Robin and Chanelle Casey.
Robin and Chanelle Casey were a long way from their home on the east coast of New Zealand, but they brought a little bit of the island and their culture to share with Montana. The Maori couple led three special performances Dec. 2 and 4, 2009 in the University of Montana Western's Beier Auditorium sponsored by the university's Polynesian Club. The performances included Maori, Polynesian, Fijian, Hawaiian, Samoan and Tongan dance. It was not the Caseys first time in Montana. On a U.S. tour in 2007, they found themselves in Polson and Kalispell, Mont. A fellow New Zealander who was familiar with the Montana Western Polynesian Club attended one of their performances. The three struck up a conversation and soon were in touch with the club’s director, Judy Ulrich. The Caseys were in Dillon on a seven-week residency to teach Maori dance to members of the Montana Western Polynesian Club (click here for a photo gallery). Practicing four hours a night for four nights a week, the Caseys’ said their stay in Dillon was a labor of love. “It’s hard, disciplined work, but it’s worth it,” Robin, 30, said of the rehearsals. Chanelle, 28, said the intense practices are necessary to do justice to their culture and traditions — something they take very seriously. “For us, it’s not just entertainment,” she added. “We are teaching our dances, but we are also teaching the meanings behind the dances, customs and costumes.” Though Maori culture and language are now celebrated parts of New Zealand’s culture and history, that was not always the case. After British colonization, Maori culture and language were oppressed and even forbidden in schools. Because language, traditions and stories were primarily passed down orally, the efforts to suppress the Maoris soon resulted in a loss of culture and language. Both of the Caseys’ families were losing their past, as were many Maoris of their parents’ generation. About 10 years ago, the Maoris began to revive their culture. As Chanelle recalls, Maori dancing soon became “the thing to do” in the 1990s. As they became reacquainted with their ancestors’ ways, the couple had the unique opportunity of teaching their parents the Maori ways. “My mother had tears of joy,” Robin recalled of learning the Maori language in school and bringing the lessons back home to his mother. “What she missed out on we got to pick up on and then teach her.” The Caseys are proud to say today’s Maori youth including their younger siblings are even more passionate about keeping Maori culture and language alive and thriving. Chanelle’s younger sister Charity recently flew in from New Zealand to provide authentic Maori guitar for the performances. The ornate costumes and weaponry the Caseys used in their dances were made by themselves and family members. The three December performances were a unique blend of island dances. The Caseys presented the five premier Maori dances: the Wha Kaeke entrance dance; the Moteatea prayer dance; the Waita Ringa action dance; the Poi; and the Haka war dance. When asked what attendees of the performance can expect, Mr. Casey said, “a lot of excitement, drama and heart-stopping adrenalin, especially in the front row.” Pausing to reflect, he added, “And a better understanding of who we are as people from New Zealand.”

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