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

It was February and I’d been taking Tahitian dance classes for six months. I was now loving my twice-weekly wiggle as well as hanging out with my sometimes cranky but always lively retired Tahitian classmates. My hips were really starting to move and my rolling ueue shake was getting so fast that the teacher grouped me into the more competent half of our class.

Now the warm-ups were more complicated, with moves like the afata (hips like a box) that I just couldn’t get right. At least the previously aloof ladies in class were now being helpful.

“Follow me,” Tania would say, bringing me over to copy her. “See you bend the knee, keep it bent, straighten then straighten. Move the hips in a square to the count of four.”

We had also started learning the choreography for two aparima, slow, graceful dances with swaying hips and lots of wave-like arm gestures. The dances were less blatantly sexy than our fast otea, but embodied a quiet feminine beauty.

I still was adamant about not performing in the show until the day our teacher Heirani announced that we were going to start making costumes.”We’ll start with our more [grass skirt] belt and headdress,” she said. “All the feathers, shells and pandanus are provided by the school and we’ll be sewing together Saturday morning.”

Grass skirts, fluffy belts, big hats and a sewing circle: this was a culture freak’s girl-time nirvana. I couldn’t help it, I wanted to wear an outrageous costume made out of leaves and shells and make it myself with the help of the locals. I told everyone that I was going to make the costumes then decide later if I was going to do the show or not. They all nodded calmly as if to say, “yeah, sure, that’s what they all say.”

When I showed up on Saturday to make my first costume I encountered a new surprise. There were at least ten other classes at the dance school and on costume day everyone was there together as a group. I knew almost everyone. There was my good friend Amel, my swimming buddy Niouk and my carpool partner Karine. It dawned on me that although I knew all of these people danced, I had never appreciated what dance had meant in their lives. After 15 years I was suddenly in a club I hadn’t realized existed. For all these years I’d been missing out on this beautiful and essential part of Tahitian culture. Now whenever I saw these friends outside of dance all we talked about was choreography and costumes.

There was a Gala rehearsal and I went. We learned how we needed to move around the stage while doing our moves in relation to the other dancers. I was used to my class of around 15 women but now we were a group of 200, ranging from age five to 75 in all shapes and sizes.

After this rehearsal there was another and then another. A live percussion orchestra played the songs we’d been dancing to in class and suddenly we were a complete, massive and organic piece of performance art. Heirani added a Monday class so we could practice more often and one morning a week was dedicated to costume making. I had a list of plants I needed to gather for my show skirts including strips of red banana trunk fiber and 50 green ‘ti leaves. Every time I was invited over to someone’s house I’d troll their garden for material.

“Yeah I’ll have a beer, and you don’t happen to have a red banana tree or some of those elephant ear vines in your yard do you?”

My fingers were sore from sewing and my legs and abs were sore from dancing so much.

During rehearsals we began to see what the other classes were up to. One day instead of practicing with my group I sat and watched the Advanced-Pro class of beautiful young women. Suddenly my class’ dances were put in perspective: we were the background music. These sirens were so outrageously lovely and moved so fluidly with such sexuality and grace that I realized no one at the Gala would be watching — could be watching — anyone else but them. It dawned on me that the athletic suppleness of Tahitian dance is made for young and limber bodies but the open-hearted culture allows everyone to take part in the fun. We all had our place in the show in the way that suited us best. Every aparima and otea told a story and created a frame in which the Advanced-Pro girls could set the stage on fire. And these dancers were literally going to set the scene aflame with giant fiery batons for one of their fast otea dances; my group would perform a gentle aparima with humble little candles just afterwards.

Our show was supposed to be at the Gauguin Museum Restaurant in the low-key village of Papeari, but there was some problem and the location was no longer available. Heirani announced we would now be dancing at To’ata Amphitheater in Papeete, the biggest venue in the country where all the big professional dances and the Heiva I Tahiti performances take place. Posters were put up all over the island, Heirani, was interviewed about the show for several local TV shows and articles were written about our troupe in the newspaper. Our show would be one of the biggest and first performances of the dance season leading up to the Heiva. Some of the Advanced-Pro dances would go on to the Heiva.

Without really being conscious of what had happened, I had gone from casually taking dance classes to committing to dance in five different numbers in front of over 2000 people in the capital city. But I was ready — I was having a ball and couldn’t have cared less if my hips made thousands of people giggle.

Yesterday: Tahitian dance chronicles, part one: Getting hooked
Tomorrow: Tahitian dance chronicles, part three: Dancing towards a new adventure

[Photos: Celeste Brash]