Tahitian dance chronicles, part one: Getting hooked

Early explorers were struck by its sensuality, Christian missionaries banned it shortly after their arrival, and the open-minded 1960s began to revive it. Today, the uber-fast hip shaking of Tahitian dance is again ever-present in French Polynesia. The best performances can be seen at the Heiva I Tahiti festival at Papeete’s Toa’ata Amphitheater in July, when locals and foreigners flock to watch some of humankind’s most spectacular dance extravaganzas. Accentuated by flamboyant costumes and live traditional percussion orchestras, the festival’s singing and dancing competitions are an unrivaled Polynesian highlight.

I’ve lived in French Polynesia for the last 15 years and have always been in awe of Tahitian dance. Although I’d been tempted to take classes, my busy lifestyle and distance from dance schools made it hard for me to make the time. But when my family and I decided to return to live in the U.S. in the near future, I knew my remaining months in Polynesia would be my last chance to explore the culture’s greatest performing art. I signed up at a school in a nearby town and hoped my schedule would allow me to keep it up. I had no idea what I was really getting myself into.

I’d been to some amateur dance school performances over the years and invariably there were French students whose hips just didn’t move like those of the girls who had grown up in the islands. It sounds mean, but it’s impossible to watch a show without snickering at them a little; everyone does it.

When I told my husband I was going to start dance classes, he immediately said, “OK, but please don’t do a show — that’s just way too embarrassing.”

In other circumstances this might have been rude, but I knew exactly what he meant. No, I was with him on this one: There was no way I was going to dance on stage as the stiff white girl.

I decided to take a morning class, which ended up being full of retired Tahitian ladies. I already knew one or two of them but to my surprise my reception was cool. They had all been dancing together for years and I was crashing their party with my thirty-something-year-old hips that moved like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. Still, the fast toere wood drum music and my talented teacher, Heirani, made me immediately love learning to fa’atere (quick hip flicks while shuffling on one’s toes) and varu (a figure-eight hip roll) across the wood floor of the hot dance studio. By the end of each class all of us were drenched in sweat and had grins stretched across our faces.

Soon the choreography got more complicated and my ineptitude shone through more. I’ve always been good at remembering stuff I read, but movement memory is another discipline. We’d learn a dance on Wednesday and by Friday I’d have forgotten it. Meanwhile, Isabelle, a French math teacher and one of the few other new students, seemed to have a photographic memory for choreography. Everyone was friendly with Isabelle while I was still the annoying new girl, messing up the dances. Someone organized a luncheon for our class and forgot to invite me. I tried not to be hurt but I was starting to feel like a real loser.

A few months into classes, Heirani announced our first rehearsal.

“We’re doing a show?” I asked in my now expected cluelessness.

“Yes, we do a Gala performance in May every year,” said Timerii, who I’ve known forever but who was aloof with me in class. “You should do it, it’s fun.”

“Oh no,” I said. “I’ll just mess it up for you.”

“Well, as it gets closer you’ll want to do it, you’ll see,” Timerii replied in a surprisingly encouraging way.

I didn’t go to the Gala rehearsal and then left the country for about a month for work. My first day back to class I showed up jetlagged but enthusiastic to learn what I’d missed.

“Ah, Celeste,” said our teacher. “You’re the only one who hasn’t passed the test.”


She put me up at the front of the class — my test was to teach the warm-up session. I was tired and had no idea what to do. I swayed my hips back and forth and waved my arms around a bit but after a few minutes the students just stopped and mumbled things like, “Jeez, can’t you come up with something better than that?”

Just as I was about to run away and never come back I spotted Arvella, a retired school principal, at the back of the room waving at me in the wall-sized mirror. She began doing all the movements I was supposed to be doing and silently motioned me to follow. By looking in the mirror I could cheat and follow her. My students mimicked me even though they knew I was watching Arvella; by the end everyone told me I’d done a splendid job.

It was hard catching up on the choreography I’d missed but the new dance was such a beautiful blend of classic Tahitian moves and modern ideas that I was spellbound and determined to get it right. Tahitian dance is filled with symbolism and this was our Earth otea with arm movements that mimicked sprouting vines; it looked a like Shakira doing Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” An otea is the fast hip-shaking type of dance that Tahiti is famous for and I loved the athletic energy mixed with Polynesian grace.

Suddenly my hips were starting to really wiggle. During our warm-ups where we would all shake our hips as fast as we could in a circular movement called a ueue, I started to get nods of approval from fellow students. Even Heirani seemed pleased.

There was another luncheon and I was invited. We drank vodka-coconut cocktails mid-day on the beach and laughed together.

“Aw, Celeste,” they all cackled. “You have to do the Gala with us. You’ll want to, you’ll see.”

Tomorrow: “Tahitian dance chronicles, part two: Going to To’ata”

[Photos: Josh Humbert and Celeste Brash]