To’ata Amphitheater, French Polynesia’s biggest Tahitian dance venue, is an open-air wooden stage surrounded by a half-circle of tiered seating for about 4000 people. High-tech lighting on adjustable steel scaffolding surrounds the arena and the stage is backed by a covered, elevated platform for the orchestra. From the stage, the seats seem very close and standing there before the show made me nervous — would I be busting my not-exactly-professional moves while looking my family and friends in the eye? My 200-woman-strong Tahitian dance troupe had rehearsed nine months for this one-night show but as a newbie, this still didn’t seem like enough time to get it right. But here I was, the night of the show and it was too late to change my mind.
While setting up our changing areas before the show, we were told that the maman groups (those of us well-past high school age) couldn’t use the dressing rooms — we’d have to change costumes outside where inevitable lurking spectators could see us. This was not ideal.
Luckily my friend Arvella came to my rescue and said if I helped out dressing the little girl dancers I could use the private rooms. This sounded like a good deal. I got in my first costume, a flamboyant number made out of leaves and vines that made me look like a glamorous swamp monster, then got to work helping the girls. After putting make-up on the first eight-year old, word got around that I had cool sparkly stuff and soon I had a line of wide-eyed cuties asking me for silver eye-shadow and lip gloss; once they were made up I was onto hair and costumes.
We were all ready and could hear the stands a-chatter with people. It got dark without us noticing and soon we were getting called to take our places. My group was entering the stage from the spectator’s stands after the Advanced-Pro and teenage girls opened the show with flaming torches. We walked up to our starting place at the main entrance of To’ata where people were still buying tickets. Several tourists took pictures of us, and I reflected on how strange it was to finally be a tourist attraction just before moving back to the States after fifteen years in this country.Our drum signal beat and on we went, through the stands and on to the stage shaking our hips, our leaf skirts swishing. Boom, boom! Like a dream our arms were raising and falling, hips never resting, bent knees, straightened knees, spinning and shimming across the stage. We were giving every move all the energy we had. Looking into the bright lights it was impossible to see the audience. I could almost imagine that we were dancing on stage by ourselves; it was perfect. I forgot that my family and friends were even there.
Before I knew it, the first dance was over and we were back in the dressing room but this time there was more to do in less time. I threw on my white fitted dress and flower hair ornament for our next dance then set about putting some little girls’ hair in buns.
After bun number three I looked around and realized I was the only grown up in the room. I ran out to see my group going on stage – I was late! Without thinking I ran on stage to my place (fortunately at the back) and got there a second before the dance began. This was a real rookie move but fortunately few people noticed.
The rest of the performance went on the same schedule: dancing, then running back to the dressing room to get dressed as quickly as possible to help the little girls with their hair and costumes. It was so hectic and fast paced that the most relaxing moments were on stage. I thought I’d be nervous and that I’d have bonding moments with my fellow dancers but there wasn’t time for this. It was all about getting on stage, getting off and working as fast as possible. The night seemed to go by in five minutes and before I knew it we were putting on our big headdresses and grass skirts for the final.
The final was choreographed so that we saluted the audience row by row with a “ia ora na” (hello or goodbye) and “maururu” (thank you). Whether this was done for the audience or not I have no idea, but from a dancer’s point of view it was the best ending possible. After nine sweaty months of laughing, bickering, sewing and building excitement I could palpably feel the overflow of gratitude from each dancer. To have been on this stage with such a diverse, strong group of women, dancing a thousand-year old tradition in costumes made from this land, Tahiti, reached back into all of our souls and transported us to a timeless place of pure culture. Thank you, we said, to the people who came to see us, to each other and to our teacher Heirani.
On my way off stage I saw one of Heirani’s aids and we stopped and hugged even though that’s rarely done in Tahiti. Some of my new little girl friends came up to me with huge smiles and one held my hand back to the dressing room. Everyone changed back into their street clothes silently. What could we say? After hundreds of hours of dancing and weeks of costume making, it was over. Thinking that I no longer had the performance to look forward to made me feel empty and light, like strong breeze could lift me away. I wondered what I could do in my new home in the US that would fill my life as much as Tahitian dance but I knew there was nothing that could ever compare to this experience. The dance was over for better or for worse and I was on the brink of a new adventure.
[Photos: Josh Humbert; Video: Jasmine Humbert]