MARSHALLS AMP UP FOR CHRISTMAS ROCK

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CELEBRATIONS
Loud music, singing, dancing are season’s tradition

Giff Johnson MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Dec. 28, 2010) - On Christmas and for days afterward churches around the Marshall Islands rock to loud music and the singing of thousands of islanders who are carrying on a tradition since the first American missionaries landed on their shores in 1857.

Known as "beat" in local parlance, the dozens of dance groups perform a type of dancing that is a cross between western stomping and folk dancing, presented to the tune of rock and roll songs in the local language that are belted out at high amps with keyboards and electric guitars.

Groups are pulled together according to atoll of residence or are formed by youth, women and Sunday school groups belonging to each church, and some practice for months to produce highly choreographed performances.

"I will be performing with my group at the main Protestant Church," said elder Norma Kaious. I have been practicing really hard so I hope the audience will love our performance." Kaious is like thousands of Marshall Islanders who spend hundreds of hours preparing for Christmas which accounts for why Christmas celebrations are not restrained to a single day.

In the Marshall Islands, the beat groups begin performing at churches a week before Christmas as a warm up. On Christmas Day, immediately following brief morning services, the groups will start dancing and continue into the night, sometimes until the sun rises the next day. Church performances will continue nightly until New Year’s Eve.

When the American Congregational missionaries began converting Marshall Islanders to Christianity in the mid-1800s, they inculcated the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25 through song and prayer. Although dancing in church was forbidden in the early days of Christianity in this western Pacific nation, since World War II, rigid missionary rules have been relaxed so that on Christmas Day, the decibel levels emanating from most churches in the Marshall Islands make them sound more like nightclubs than places of worship. It’s a uniquely Marshall Islands celebration.

Church pews are pushed back to the sides of the church making a large dance floor for the dance groups.

Each group starts a song outside the church in rural areas of the capital city Majuro, police will hold up traffic to allow dance groups to launch their performance on the road before heading into the nearby church.

The groups will perform several dances inside the church, and then break into choir songs.

What grabs the attention of the hundreds of children who pack the churches for these presentations is the final dance when each troupe marches in circles around the inside of the church singing while simultaneously tossing copious amounts of candy, coin money and a variety of small gifts ranging from plastic drinking cups to pencils at the audience.

People often move from one church to another to see different beat groups, especially if word gets out about a particularly exciting performance. "I have my niece visiting from the United States so I will take her around town so we can watch all the groups," said local resident Mina Nani.

With dozens of dance groups ready to perform Saturday, it will keep islanders celebrating Christmas into next week.

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