Expert, Vanuatu Cultural Center
The Rom Dance is a prominent cultural heritage originating from Ambrym Island in the Vanuatu archipelago. Ole in the Ambrym vernacular language refers to dance performances in which participants wear a rom mask. The rom, which is the mask itself, is a simpler version of the Banks Islands’ tamate mask, but it looks more similar to South Malekula masks.
The Rom Mask
Jean Guiart, an internationally renowned ethnologist, visited Vanuatu in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He studied Ambrym and its population’s sociocultural interactions and context. He recorded the following information about how rom masks are created and designed.
stretched over a wooden frame called baye ne rom, which is extracted from an herbaceous vine. The vine is grated and mixed in its own sap to create a thick dough. The resulting plaster material is used to shape the mask. The hair adorning the rom is made from banana tree fibers. A tight string is fixed upon a transversal bar inside the mask. While dancing, the performer keeps the mask on his head by holding the bar with his teeth and by fastening the string behind his head. The mask’s eyes are split to allow the dancer to look around. Four colors are used to decorate the mask—red, white, black, and green—which are extracted from local flora.
The rom is worn over a rablar coat, which is made out of banana leaves and almost reaches to the ground from the performer’s shoulder. One arm of the dancer is covered with a ueran rom, a wooden piece that has bells made out of small nuts, fixed upon it.
Diamond motifs are common, and the size and proportion of the masks as well as the regularity of their edges vary and usually determine the status or rank of the rom. Each rom’s face has a particular name assigned to it, differentiating it and its rank within the whole rom society system.
The Ole Dance
The ole dance is an integral part of ceremonies. The process involves crafting the masks as well as performing in them and eventually destroying them. The rituals are a complex mix of secularized mysticism. The religious aspects that one sees in performances are practically inexistent and rely mostly on the temporal characterization of one’s status in Ambrym’s society. In short, the mask is a portion of the process involving the ole dance; but its importance cannot be neglected since the mask reveals information about the member.
The dancers’ vision, despite the slit in the mask’s eyes, is obstructed, and they need to be led to the dancing ground and properly positioned and inspected before the ceremony starts. During the dance, the leaders sing and shout around the dancers to mark the dance area while others hit hollow logs to create a rhythm. The dance is performed in a straight line where pairs of dancers take turns following the rhythmic pattern. As the dancers move within the dancing area, they move in a slow circling motion and bounce their heads back and forth and from one side to another.
An Intangible Heritage amongst Others on Ambrym
The rom masks and the ole dance are integral to the Ambrymese social structure. Not directly related but highly interdependent to the mage chiefly system, a multitude of secret societies exists on Ambrym. The particularity of these societies, more specifically in regards to the roms, is that members acquire their ranks independently from other systems. The mage system is a grade-taking chiefly system, which are commonly shared in the northern Vanuatu, where Ambrym Island is located. While the mage system is secular in terms of visibility, transparency, and impact over the population regardless of age and gender, the roms have a more mystical significance, where the title holder is de-humanized and becomes a sort of living spirit, often representing his paternal grandfather in the process. The dancer is then re-humanized by burning the mask and leading the spirit on its way back to the mystical world. Rom society members function in a tightly closed group.
Rom masks and the ole dance involve a wealth of tangible and intangible heritage. In performing the ole dance in specially selected locations—namely Nasara—these spaces are closely linked to the performance. They are, therefore, considered cultural spaces according to the concepts outlined in the 2003 UNESCO Convention.
Meanwhile, the increase in tourists visiting Ambrym to see such performances has provided locals with new revenues over the past decade. The tourism industry is the most secure and vast venue to spread such cultural heritage knowledge while providing the necessary economic and social tools to sustain, preserve, and promote the rom. Valorization is achieved through art festivals and regular performances based on traditional Ambrym calendars. Three recurrent festivals promoted by the Tourism Office in Port Vila are the Fanla Art Festival in Fanla village, the Yam and Magic Festival in Olal village, and the Back to My Roots Festival, which is also in Olal.
UNESCO. Text of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Ar ticle 2. 2003. Accessed Februar y 24, 2014. http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/?/lg=fr&pg=00054
Guiart, Jean. Société Rituels et Mythes du Nord-Ambrym (Nouvelles-Hébrides). Tome VII, n°7. Extrait du Journal de la Societe des Oceanistes. 1951.
Bonnemaison, Joel, Kirk Huffman, Christian Kaufmann, and Darrel Tyron. Ar ts of Vanuatu. First Edition. University of Hawaii Press. June 1, 1997.