In the early days of Yap, the tribes would hold a festival on the evening of each full moon. Each night, two beautiful girls would dance at the festival and disappear before the sun came up. A tribeman was particularly curious, and one night secretly followed them when they left the celebration. He was amazed at what he saw... when the two girls arrived at the shore, each of them dug up a set of fins, slipped them on, and disappeared into the water, having transmogrified into dolphins.
The villager was love-stricken, and devised a most cunning plan. He waited until the next full moon and hid in a tree, waiting for the girls to arrive. Once they had morphed into human form and joined the fun, he dug up one set of fins and hid them far away on the other side of the island. When the girls returned and found only one set of fins, they searched frantically, but to no avail. One of the girls returned to the sea, and the other was left behind. The tribesman was kind to her and eventually won her heart. Although she longed to return to the sea, she accepted her life on land, and became his wife. He attended to her hand and foot, giving her everything she wanted, but he also gave her a strict warning: there was one part of the island that was taboo, and could never be visited.
Many years had passed. She had been accepted into the tribe, and had borne him a son. But one day her curiosity overcame her and she went to the place she had been forbidden to enter. Upon finding the fins she had lost long ago, she at once understood what had happened. She put them on and returned to the sea, leaping over the villager's boat as she left the lagoon. He cried, knowing his love had left him.
This is the Micronesian legend of the dolphin maidens, similar in construction to any number of other myths from many different cultures. The story has been handed down from generation to generation, but not in written form, or even orally. Yap legends are told through the dance. Imagine trying to tell this story using only the movements of your body, in front of a thousand onlookers on the most important day of the year. You've had a year to prepare... are you ready? Welcome to Yap Day.
A state holiday held on March 1st, Yap Day is a celebration of the culture and tradition of Yap, a day long gala featuring games, contests, food, crafts, and, of course, dancing. The annual festival was started in the 1960s as way to embrace the island's tribal history in the face of modernization and the influx of Christianity. Young men compete in stick fighting tournaments, tree-climbing races, and spear throwing contests. Farmers and fishermen bring the fruits of their labor to be judged, hoping to win prizes for the largest catch and the juiciest produce. Women offer their crafts, giant pig roasts are feasted on, and art is tattooed with sharpened chicken bones onto the bodies of celebrants, trying to win a prize for the most intricate design. The highlight of the festivities, however, are the dances, performed for all in front of an assembly of chiefs of all the outer islands.
Now dance is a vital part of Yap culture, performed all over the island during any important social events and holidays. Finding a dance on Yap is like finding a casino in Vegas. But the Yap Day dances are something else entirely. They are long, complicated dances with coordinated group movements, elaborate solos, and stick dancing, accompanied with an ancient atonal chanting that most Yapese can't even translate. They are practiced for the better part of a year, requiring the choreographing of as many as one hundred dancers, dressed in special garments for the momentous occasion. These dances, telling stories of war and love and heroism, are performed only on Yap Day.
Until recently, only the Yappese were allowed to participate in the Yap Day festivities, but the celebration is now open to the public. As a result, it is the busiest time of year in Yap, where hotels are booked far in advance and even getting to the island can be difficult.