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]

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]