Break Dancing

A better game than war

One of the articles in Governance (IC#7)
Originally published in Autumn 1984 on page 59
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

AROUND 1900, WHEN THE BRITISH were hard at work colonizing various Pacific Islands, the Trobriand Islanders were engaging in ritual warfare. The Trobriands are a group of Polynesian Islands off the turkey-tail of Papua, New Guinea to the west. The islanders, like other Papuans, had engaged in ritual tribal warfare for as long as anyone could remember. This was not the cold iron and steel, row upon row warfare of the Continental armies. Nor was it a guerrilla- type war, with insurgents opposed to some ruling class. This warfare, while somewhat bloody, was warfare between men of different tribes and involved great magic, wonderful dress, vigorous dancing and chanting, the stealing of pigs, and the taking of some life. After the warfare between the villagers, the men (women, of course, did not participate) would sit down to feast together. There was a winner and a loser, but not a great deal (relatively) was lost.

The British missionaries who arrived in the Trobriands found this ritualized warfare barbarous and immediately forbade it. Coincidentally, they introduced the game of cricket to the Islanders. Cricket is not the most interesting of sports (may Her Majesty forgive me), with strict rules, lengthy slow play, and a dozen members to a side. When introduced to the Trobrianders, however, something wonderful happened.

It was an evolutionary process, over the last 80 years, and it continues. The British influence from colonists, and more especially from missionaries, became felt less and less. The islanders slowly began to recapture their native customs. Ritualized warfare was still outlawed, but the magic lived in the people, and the fight was in the men.

The first thing to go in the cricket game was the limited number of players. Twelve men on a side could not accommodate all the fighters in a tribe. The number was expanded to 50 or so, depending on how many showed up in the host village for the game. The other side then was allowed to have the same number of warriors – er, players. Then the magic came back. In the old days there were many incantations and secret spells cast by the shamen to empower the spear-throwers. These same spells, with some modification, began to be placed on the bats used in play. There were no balls generally used in the old tribal wars, so no magic was available for the balls. But wait! There was magic for the throwing arm (formerly with spear in hand) and that same magic could grant strength and true-aim to a pitcher. And so on, the magic was used.

Best of all was the transformation of the dancing and chanting into an element of the cricket game. On the morning of a game, by this decade, the warriors wake up, put on their paint and battle dress, and dance in line to the village hosting the game. They enter the field, dancing and chanting, taunting the other side to dare compete. The home team then does the same. The chants and spectacle incorporate ancient tribal totems and current advertising slogans. The dancing is precise, vigorous, aggressive, and fierce. The game is usually played for two days, involving as many innings as there are players, and no one is killed. The game ends with a feast provided by the host chief (for political reasons) and the Trobriand Cricket game is over.

A verbal description does not do credit to this marvelous pageant. The movie Trobriand Cricket, a documentary by University of California anthropologists, contains the film footage necessary to witness what happened in these islands. Much credit is due to the film producers.

But the producers do not speculate on what this movie says about war and peace, so I will here. Let me begin with what some may think is a sexist assumption.

I share a belief with Ernest Callenbach, the author of Ecotopia, that there is something in the nature of the male – most males and some females, anyway – that is inherently aggressive. Now let’s not call that violent. Let us also not assume that this means that women cannot be bank presidents or construction managers, or have no need to achieve in the world. Simply allow the belief for a moment that there is something in the nature of the yang that likes to fight, compete, conquer, but that this is not necessarily an evil drive. Let’s assume, however, that like all such human drives, it needs healthy expression.

The game of Trobriand Cricket is not dissimilar to the football games of North America. But there is one major difference. The majority of the boys don’t play the game in North America, they watch it. They don’t move threateningly and roar. They act out the yang vicariously, powerlessly. It’s not enough, I think. Vicariously becomes, perhaps, Vietnam, El Salvador, the Trident Submarine, unhealthy expressions of what may be one of the most joyous, exuberant qualities of our human nature – the urge to get out there leaping and shouting and roaring at the perceived competition. It doesn’t have to involve killing. The Trobrianders have taught us that.

This falls into the category of what Bob Fuller calls "a better game than war" (see IN CONTEXT #4, page 18). He says, and I paraphrase, that we humans delight to interact, to collide into each other with aggression and drama. He points out that forty years after our bloody, bloody battle with Japan, all manner of healthy interchange is taking place. Why not, he says, skip the war and surrender to each other? Let’s find a better game than war to get us interacting.

What we see in the Trobriand Islands is a transformation of war into dance. This allows for all the prerequisites of both the need of the yang to be healthfully expressed and the need for a better game than war. Everybody gets to play (women too, in our version), everybody gets to show off, growl at the opponents, wear themselves out, compete like mad. We’ll have high-tech sound effects and lighting, banshee-punk costumes, and we’ll do it all night.

You’re laughing now, aren’t you? That’s because you haven’t yet seen Beat Street.

Go to this movie if you are interested in Dance as a Better Game than War. It’s the theme of the movie. Find some thirteen year olds to be with you so you won’t look silly in the theater by yourself. Be prepared for a movie that’s gotten bad reviews but is so upbeat and culturally significant that we ought to send the reviewers to the Trobriand Islands. It is a bit trite sometimes, I admit, but the music, break dancing, and costumes are great. Mostly, it lets us know that there are other ways to fight than blood- letting. There are two rival gangs in Beat Street, but they don’t carry weapons. They carry huge tape players and they dance each other into the ground. The gangs are the New York City Breakers and the Rock Steady Crew. They are playing a better game than war. I think they know they are.

Now even my imagination won’t allow me to picture George Bush and Andre Gromyko in punk glitter with feathers on and strobe lights flashing trying to out-break each other. I wish they would, though. The point is not that we all have to get down and bust out. I don’t imagine our generals are in shape for it. But this is one emerging cultural form that does have the capacity to be a better game. There are dozens of others. Let’s start a column in In Context called "a better game." Write in your ideas for ways of popular interacting that allows for passion, aggression, and the intimacy that results, with drama and intensity, and no killing.

Let’s identify cultural movements already happening like Trobriand Cricket and Beat Street, and let’s think of some new ones and then do them. Let’s get that even sad white people can be close to passion and learn healthy expression for the yang. Let’s affirm these better games into massive cultural movements and withdraw permission for our government to make war while we’re dancing.

Jessie Dye wrote the article on "Mediation" in issue #4. She lives in Seattle.

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