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by Entwistle on 10 April 2020

With its iconic curvature and implied anthropomorphic form, this important dance paddle from Easter Island in Polynesia is a refreshing reminder of the arrival of spring.

Few iconic objects in the opus of primitive art express the abstract representation of the human body with as much elegance and sinuous simplicity as the double-bladed dance paddle, rapa, of the peoples of Easter Island in Polynesia. Indeed, in its stylization, few objects can match the plasticity of its anthropomorphic approach, reflected in the conflation and implication of corporeal elements within its form.

The symmetry and refinement of the rapa is all the more remarkable when one considers these ceremonial instruments were carved exclusively from planks from the centre of a log of the long extinct Toromiro tree (Sophora Toromiro). It is, to say the least, a delicate and arduous task.

According to Michel Orliac and Dr. Catherine Orliac,  “The way the object is extracted from the piece of wood is always the same: through splitting, a wedge is taken from the greatest diameter of a log, which is most often very straight, in or close to its medullary axis, parallel or slightly oblique …this wedge is then planed perfectly…no trace of the cutting or shaping remains: the state of the surface is perfect” [1]



Carved as a short dance paddle to be held in mid-shaft and twirled rhythmically in time with chants, the rapa alludes, in its figure-eight contour, to an organic form with the handle acting as an axial feature in the equilibrium between upper and lower volumes; the paddle’s carved form functions as a balancing mechanism in much the same way as the human head and hips of the human body and the upper and lower bouts in a violin are regulated by the waist.

Essential to many dances and ceremonies, the dance paddles were usually carried in pairs to accent the movements of performers who spun them on their axes to the rhythm of a chanted accompaniment.[2] Rapa were used by both men and women, although the sexes seldom performed together.[3]

Alfred Métraux states that the rapa “…was used by chiefs in their war dances before the king. They were twirled and shaken in close proximity to his face as though to frighten him.”[4]


[1]. Michel Orliac and Dr. Catherine Orliac, Treasures of Easter Island, Tours, 2008, p. 169

[2]. Alfred Métraux, Ethnology of Easter Island, Honolulu, 1971, p. 267

[3]. William J. Thomson, ‘Te Pito te Henua, or Easter Island’, in: United States National Museum, Annual Report for the Year Ending 30 June, 1889, Washington, DC, 1891, p. 469, quoted in Eric Kjellgren, Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island, New York, 2001, p. 73

[4].  Métraux, op.cit, p. 267

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