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Dayak Sword Dance

 

I was on the island of Borneo, in Sarawak, up a river in a sweaty Dayak longhouse. It wasn't much to look at, planks laid over a handhewn frame, a wobbly floor, and a tin roof.  Of course, there was some minimal electricity, as there is almost everywhere now, and although it was daytime and the sun was beating down on the clapboard wall to my back, the lights were on, such as they were. This was because there was going to be a dance. An old man came forward, his body covered in esoteric tattoos. He carried a narrow wooden shield and a wicked-looking parang, or fighting knife. It's sort of a machete that's been fancied up with extra curliques and zigzags. Traditionally, this weapon was used for headhunting. But the Dayak no longer took heads, so now, it was just a dance implement. I didn't expect much of the impending performance, as he was just a stringy, leathery scarecrow of a guy with corrugated, horizontal wrinkles across his tattooed stomach.  But when the music started, his war dance was filled with vigor and strange menace. The sword, gleaming in the half-light would spin, slip, flip, and swerve over his arm like a bandleaders baton. His footwork was complex and confusing. He must have been eighty, and I realized that at his age, he would have lived through World War Two. It's rumored that the Dayaks, traditional headhunters, were encouraged to take up their old habits as a kind of insurgency against Japanese occupation. If so, this fellow was right in the age bracket to be reliving some serious noggin-harvesting. It was clear that he did not give a damn that anyone was watching. His dance was his, in honor of his ancestors, who knew who they were, and what their world expected them to do.




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