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Millennium Front Line: Kiribati - Humanity greets dawn of century with `The Dance of the Buttocks'

THE DANCERS, in grass skirts, smooth coconut oil into their skin to make it glisten and carefully straighten the garlands on each other's brows. Nerves are fluttering at the dress rehearsal for the first sunrise of the millennium.

When the dance troupe from the South Pacific republic of Kiribati greets that dawn it will be from a lagoon on the most remote of their nation's 33 coral atolls, usually home only to birds, rare turtles and basking sharks.

They will dance on the beach for their president and, live by satellite, for television viewers across the world.

For now they await their cue by moonlight under the thatch of a traditional open hut. In the front row Boorenga hitches up her heavy skirt - not actually grass but made from palm fronds soaked, sun-bleached and cut into strips. Two of Boorenga's sisters and her eight-year-old brother will also perform on the newly named Millennium Island.

Their father, Barassu, is the choreographer, and he claps the beat and waves last instructions as the troupe's male elders chant the refrain:

This is a very special time

We are awaiting a birth.

Open your eyes

And see the new dawn!

Then Boorenga and the others weave and sway and the tempo quickens. Kiribati dances are a flirtation with the elements on which people here still depend - the Sun, the Earth, the winds, the ocean. This is "The Dance of the Buttocks" and it ends with the skirts swung ever faster until they reach head-height, and knock the garlands from the dancers' hair. "The movements are good," Barassu tells them. "But you must smile more. You are celebrating for everyone."

When missionaries were sent from Britain, they looked severely on the more exotic ways of what, in the days of empire, were the Gilbert and Ellice islanders. Yet those ways flourish even now.

Winnie Powell, 69, is the daughter of the first mate of a British trading steamer who was charmed by a local girl. Most mornings she meanders among the tangle of shrubs, collecting leaves and roots to make potions which keep her family healthy. She talks of magic. "Even if you don't believe in it, the power can reach you. There can be bad magic that hurts or kills, and good magic that heals. It does still happen here."

She does not believe the millennium will bring sudden change to Kiribati culture. She says their isolation should preserve it. "Besides, for most of us our old ways work well. We have whole families all living together, happy to support each other. Many of our houses are open platforms with no walls but no one steals things from them and we make friends more easily like that. We also prefer to use the things that nature has given us to survive. Why buy sheets for our beds when we can weave mats instead?"

Most homes are still made from the trunks and leaves of palms and other island trees,their joints bound with string woven from coconut husks. Fish caught on the reef are still cooked over open fires, and corned beef is one of the few canned treats in the scattered stores.

But Western ways have left their mark. In the days when all waste rotted, beaches kept their beauty. Now on the archipelago's main island of Tarawa there are swathes of plastic flotsam and the wreckage of vehicles and machinery too costly to transport elsewhere or dispose of properly.

Then there is the irony that the nation which will lead us into the year 2000 may not survive more than a couple decades before global warming sinks it. The highest land is no more than three metres above sea level, and the Pacific is steadily rising.

Some buildings and causeways have already collapsed, but the end would come well before the waves start regularly lapping over thresholds. If the sea seeps into the water table, salination would kill the crops and make well-water undrinkable.

The Kiribati government takes this eventuality seriously enough to have drawn up plans with Australia to relocate its population of 77,000 there if the worst happens.

James Uan has fished Kiribati's reefs and lagoons all his life, casting his nets from an outrigger canoe. He says he has watched the tides creep higher, and when he travels to represent the fishermen's co-operative at environmental forums in the Pacific he puts the case bluntly.

"We, the Kiribati people, want the developed nations of the world to reduce the amount of their gas emissions. Otherwise we are just going to sink under the seas."

Mr Uan believes, along with Kiribati's political leaders, that their nation's millennium moment is a chance to press their case hard, while the eyes of the world are upon them. "We don't want to become even more famous in 25 years time," he says.