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Performed for centuries, the cultural dances and ceremonies of the Ni Vanuatu are profoundly spiritual experiences and have as strong a cultural relevance to the people now as they did many years ago.

No matter where you visit in Vanuatu, be sure to make time to witness some of the outer island cultural experiences. Here are five of our favourites.

Experience the Fanla/Rom Dance and Black Magic Festival

You’ll be captivated by the Rom Dance in Fanla, one of the oldest villages on the island of Ambrym. You’ll be greeted by 20 men in ceremonial masks who stomp and sing and laugh on nasara (the dance ground). Using instruments carved from tree stumps and bamboo, they control the rhythm.

If they’re adorning their tatabe masks (meaning movement), the dancers are not allowed to stop dancing. While they’re guided by their Chiefs and high ranking warriors during the dance, sometimes, the spirit of the mask takes over and the dancers can’t stop moving. Think of the masks as a portal, or gateway for the ancestor spirits to reach out and live in the modern world. It’s a powerful sight.

After experiencing the Rom dance, you’ll be treated to a spread of refreshments (fresh fruit from the trees surrounding you). You’ll also have the opportunity to see magic performed by special sorcerers, participe in lava stone carving, purchase local carvings and watch weavers at their craft.

To get a little more info and check out a map of where this happens click here.

Witness the Pentecost Land Diving/Nagol Festival

Every Saturday from April to June on Pentecost Island, witness the ancient tradition of land diving. Watch as men plummet to the ground from a 30m timber tower, with nothing but a vine tied to their feet.

Why do this? It sounds crazy! Well, as custom story goes, after quarrelling with her husband, a woman climbed to the top of a nearby banyan tree to escape him. She secretly tied a vine around her ankle so that when her husband climbed up after her, she could launch herself out of the tree, giving him a fright. This ceremony also has a strong relevance to crop fertility and is believed to generate a strong yam harvest.

While this tradition was initially performed by women, as women wear skirts, jumping off tall structures would leave them quite bare. So the activity is now only practiced by men, as a rite of passage. But women are still involved! Their eerie tunes and dancing at the base of the tower form an important part of the ceremony. It’s also forbidden for tourists to participate in the diving, so don’t get your hopes up! 

Be Amazed by the Rah Snake Dance

The Ra Snake Dance on Ra Island in the Banks Islands Group in the far north of Vanuatu is one of the most famous cultural shows in all of Vanuatu. This dance, performed only by men, involves glossing black and white paint on the body to mimic sea snakes. With a leaf held between their teeth, carrying sticks decorated with fruit and feathers and accompanied by a local string band this seaside dance is very unique. Snakes hold a variety of cultural references in Vanuatu and new Christian beliefs about evil and morality are not what is on display here – this tradition goes back to before the missionaries.

It’s recommended you wear black to this show, as you’ll undoubtedly be encouraged to join the dancers, and the paint on the dancers bodies may run off on you.

Delight in the Futuna Cultural Show

If you’re looking for a very visually appealing display then the Futuna Cultural Show has it all. We especially loved the very intricate woven costumes that include leg decorations of both woven pandanus and nuts that make a distinct sound as the dancers stomp. Run by young people from the tiny island of Futuna who are passionate about making a difference in their communities, this cultural show, performed in a forest clearing, allows you to listen to and learn directly from Tafutuna warriors.

Getting to Futuna Island is not easy, so if you’re in Tanna Island check out the community of Futuna Dancers at the Futuna cultural experience there. 

There is also a community of dancers from Futuna living in the capital city Port Vila so if you don’t get a chance to travel south, you can often find them dancing at Breakas Resort.

Dance at the Nalawan Festival

Since time immemorial, the Small Nambas warriors on Malekula Island have come together on Fire Beach, to worship and present offerings to the gods of their ancestors before the harvest season. The festival traditionally begins with a pig killing, followed by two days of celebration, which in Ni Vanuatu culture, means lots of food, fire and certainly dancing.

The Small Nambas cultural dance never leaves this geographical region – so you won’t find them in Vanuatu festivals or on stages on other islands. The Small Nambas say that if you want to see their dance and experience their culture, you have to go to them. Rightly so.

The deeply cultural experiences are rooted in a belief system known commonly in Vanuatu as ‘kastom’. The dances you may experience are only a part of the kastom and are often driven by special occasions such as rites of passage (circumcision is one) or crop harvests or chiefly ranking celebrations. They tie communities together in a common activity, celebration, sharing of food and often gift giving. While many of the dances are available to be shared with tourists, others are not driven by tourism and occur based on the cultural calendar which varies from year to year.

To learn more about the unique culture in Vanuatu we suggest you check out some of the information on Vanuatu Cultural Centre's website.