This story is the first in the 'Earth, Body & Soul' series of profiles showcasing incredible women who use their bodies to fuel their climate activism. This week, Brianna Fruean and the power of dance; next week, E Wen Wong on poetry.
It’s 2018 and Brianna Fruean has just finished her duo performance at a climate change conference in Germany, explaining the significance of Samoa’s Toloa bird and rising sea levels in the Pacific, when the MC announces that Fruean is going to close the conference with the Taualuga, the final dance. To hundreds of people.
This Tama’ita’i Samoa has been speaking up about climate change since she was 11 and she’s really good at giving speeches. Speaking’s fine. But dancing by herself? Growing up in Samoa, Fruean would never be the one to dance by herself. “I was always a part of a group,” she says, “and would follow people.”
In Samoa, the traditional Taualuga dance which closes ceremonies and functions is normally performed by the eldest, but being the youngest in her family, Brianna had never done it before - at home, let alone in front of a packed auditorium, and with no warning.
So the 23-year-old did what any dedicated activist would do. She got to her feet and gave it her best. “It was freestyle, and my heart was beating faster than the Taualuga dance.”
She was in Germany with the Pacific Climate Warriors, sharing stories or performance pieces explaining why they do climate change work and why everyone should care about it. After Fruean’s Taualuga the audience stood up, surrounded the group and danced too.
“It's easy to clap,” says Fruean, “but it's much harder to stand up. It was a sign of appreciation, but not for me - I was the vessel completing everything - but for all the Pacific Climate Warriors who shared before me. It’s such a feeling of reassurance that what you've shared has landed the way that you wanted it to.”
Throughout her formative years in Samoa, Fruean was surrounded by music and dance. “Whenever we had a family gathering we would dance. Me and my sister grew up around Pacific dancing and my cousins, who are much older than me, would teach me dances and then we performed them. I felt so connected to them and my family. I loved feeling like a part of something.”
That young girl wouldn’t have imagined she might dance in front of the Bank of England one day. Last year at COP26 in Glasgow, Fruean gave a rousing speech - and Joe Biden was taking notes - but she also danced with two other Pacific Climate Warriors on the steps of the Bank of England, one of the biggest funders for the fossil fuel industry.
“We performed a Siva Samoa [dance] in front of a huge colonial institution - this bank funded the vessels that came and colonised the islands, and funded slave trading, it’s such a rich bank, it looks like a museum.”
When colonists came to the islands they tried to strip culture, which, explains Fruean, is a way to control. “If they take our culture, they strip our identity and feeling of worth. Siva Samoa could have been lost and I know a lot of cultures who did lose their dancing, so to be able perform that in front of this financial institution we were like, ‘No, you couldn't take this dance from us! We're still being taught this dance, this is what you couldn't steal, and this is what you won't steal from us! And you can't steal our land!’. It was such a moment in time, so many things connected.”
For Fruean, and her friends who travelled to COP26 together, they can tell people about Samoan culture but say it’s much better when they can show it. “You can do a full speech, where you try to explain the culture that we're trying to protect, but through Siva, you can do a one minute dance with traditional Samoan song and you've shown them.
“That's why art and dance in particular is so important in this work. Us sharing our culture through Siva Samoa also puts the responsibility in the viewers hands. We've shared such a raw and emotional part of our culture to you, now you hold some of the responsibility of protecting it because you've been a part of it now.”
It's important to Fruean to show parts of Samoan culture that’s been preserved but it’s not just for the audience. It’s also for the activists. “It was such a therapy for me to be able to dance because I do so much speaking and interviews” - she’s presented to world leaders and spoke with the Queen at 16 - “and I just wanted to show people what I meant. It's so powerful. One of the most beautiful things when someone's dancing is that you don't care what people think of you, you’re not worried about the moves or anything, you’re just feeling it.”
Dance feels like a portal to the past for Fruean too. “It's that thing that can open us up to feel connected to our ancestors, to home, to Samoa. This is the reason why we're here. We're here to protect our culture in Samoa, that these songs speak of.”
Providing hope, through speech or dance, is vital to Fruean’s work and she can also see how her work as a climate activist intersects with other activism.
“I read somewhere that all the world's issues are woven together in the same cloth and everything intersects - racism, colonisation, climate change, war - through this same belief that some people are expendable, and some people are not, and some people's money and power is more valuable than the lives of others. So when we pull on one of those threads, it makes all the other ones weaker.
“The wins we see from movements like Black Lives Matter should also be seen as wins for us in the climate space, because they're pulling on a thread that's dismantling this cloth that is suffocating us. I think it's important for young people who want to see change, to keep pulling on that one thread, even if you've just started out, keep going. It’s going to make this cloth weaker and weaker, until we have all these people pulling on threads and dismantling the whole thing."
Protecting her culture, dismantling the systems creating climate change, speaking up, travelling, it’s a lot and sometimes, Fruean says, she can feel overwhelmed: “there's so much wrong”.
Connection, hope, and watching her internal thoughts are all tools in this tama’ita’i Samoa’s belt.
“I've always said to myself there's no one else like me. I think that's really important, and to be kind to ourselves. I've always felt okay with who I am. I love the ‘I weigh campaign by Jameela Jamil around the scrutiny women have towards their bodies. These thoughts are wasting your time when you could be thinking about other things. Do I need to spend an hour today thinking badly about myself? No, I can be spending that hour doing something more productive, doing some work that can get me paid or speaking up about climate change, being there for friends, anything else. And I know it's much easier said than done, but it's a lesson I've held on to.
“I feel grateful for my body getting me to where I need to be, for surviving this long, and being able to carry me through my life and activism.”
The writer wishes to acknowledge the support of YWCA Aotearoa for their help and aroha with this series.