Tahitian dance chronicles, part three: Dancing towards a new adventure (video)

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.

Previously —
Tahitian dance chronicles, part one: Getting hooked
Tahitian dance chronicles, part two: Going to To’ata

[Photos: Josh Humbert; Video: Jasmine Humbert]

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]

Chase a solar eclipse in unique style this summer

On July 11th of this year, the moon will pass between the Earth and the Sun, creating a total solar eclipse that will cast portions of the planet in complete darkness for up to 4 minutes. The best place to view this astronomical phenomenon will be in the South Pacific, with prime viewing locations along a few atolls in French Polynesia and on remote Easter Island. Actually, those places will be the second best place to see it, as a once in a lifetime travel opportunity will give 41 lucky travelers a unique and very personal view of the eclipse – from the air.

The EFlight 2010 will set out from Tahiti and fly directly into the moon’s umbral shadow, while climbing above any cloud cover for a complete, unobstructed view of the eclipse. The flight will take place aboard a specially designed and equipped Airbus A319, which will allow its passengers to intercept the lunar shadow approximately 2500km to the east of their starting location. While traveling through that shadow, the travelers will have the opportunity to witness the totality of the eclipse for an unprecedented 9.5 minutes, more than double its length on the Earth’s surface.

The Airbus that has been specifically chartered for this flight has had all of the seats removed along the left side of the plane, the same side that will face the eclipse itself. This will allow the passengers to have the best view possible out of those windows, where they’ll not only be immersed in the darkness of the Moon’s shadow, but will also get a chance to glimpse the Sun’s bright white corona in all of its glory.

Make no mistake, a unique trip such as this one doesn’t come cheap, but with the limited number of seats available, you also know that it is a travel experience that few will have a chance to enjoy. The EFlight alone will set you back $9000 which ensures that you have your own window for the eclipse. If you don’t mind sharing that window however, the costs drop to $6500 per seat. That price is for the EFlight alone and doesn’t include the international flight to Tahiti or accommodations while on the island.

For more information about the tour itself, click here. And for more details on the EFlight than you ever thought possible, click here.

20 great destinations for shopping

Shoppers of all kinds will fall in love with the places that made this list of the top 20 cities for shopping. Whether you live nearby or are planning a trip, this list offers places ideal for anyone in need of some retail therapy.

New Orleans, Louisiana

The French Quarter and Bourbon Street are only the starting point in the unique shopping destinations you’ll find in New Orleans. Stroll the French Market and pick up vibrant art from street vendors, or dash down a side street and discover one of the many galleries and specialty shops that sell one-of-a-kind items. This is also where you’ll find all manner of New Orleans themed clothing, voodoo dolls, postcards, and other tourist finds.

After exploring The Quarter, head to Magazine Street, where many of the city’s college students and young professionals flock. If treasures for the home are what you are looking for, then trek to Aux Belles Choses, a “shabby-chic” shop where the owners hand-pick each addition to their store. For the hottest fashions, try Buffalo Exchange and Funky Monkey, where hip fashionistas trade in their old clothes for new outfits and accessories. Be on the lookout for the latest trends and vintage frocks and accessories.Toronto, Canada
I love the the Distillery District, a pedestrian mall and historical district where a number of Toronto’s emerging artists and designers have shops. Tour the works of art at one of Thomas Landry Gallery’s two locations or browse rack after rack of denim masterpieces at Lileo. Peruse the collections of artists like Wendy Walgate, who create pieces with deep meaning out of familiar materials.

Established in 1975, Courage My Love is a Bohemian shopping mecca and is where Hollywood stylists and starlets flock to accessorize. It’s like looking through a friend’s closet, if the closet just happened to take up an entire store. If luxury is more your style, then make tracks to Zenobia, where a personal shopper will compile a perfect wardrobe for you. Your Zenobia representative will help you craft your style months in advance then have your pieces tailored in season.

Tokyo, Japan
The pomp and ceremony at Mitsukoshi is incredible. Founded in the 17th Century, this Japanese department store chain has the most outstanding customer service I have ever seen. Here you can find everything from traditional Japanese garb to gardening tools. Visit the main store in the Nihombashi District or one of the other buildings placed conveniently throughout the city. Another historical and traditional store is Kyukyodo, which sells stationary and writing supplies. Here, even sheets of paper can be works of art.

Boston, Massachusetts
Boston is a city of American prestige and history. While you are here, take in the sights and enjoy the city’s luxuries. At Firestone and Parson, you can find fine exquisite antique estate jewelry and silver as as well as new baubles. Louis Boston is one of the world’s premier sellers of fine clothing. The staff is second to none, and they go the extra mile to get to know their customers. They will work with you to ensure your new wardrobe matches the current fashion climate and your own personal style. While you are in town, design a custom handbag at Lill Studio or, if you don’t have the time, browse their ready-made collection. This innovative store makes shopping an affair to remember.

Marrakesh, Morocco
For Western travelers, Morocco is an exotic and exciting shopping destination. This is why the winding streets around Marrakesh’s Djamaa El Fna Square, with its labyrinth of treasures, plus its hustlers and haggling shopkeepers, is a must see. For a dizzying array of local and international herbs and spices, visit Herboriste du Paradis.

Beijing, China
Beijing is a flourishing shopping city set in the shadow of the iconic Great Wall. You can visit the traditional night market and pick up the usual tourist trinkets, but it’s the quiet cultural revolution taking place here that really gets me excited. China’s art scene is exploding, and I’ve found that it’s easier than ever to find works by contemporary Chinese artists. Formerly a state owned factory district, the 798 Art District is an amazing collection of designer boutiques and galleries, where you can find everything from pop art to chic designer clothing. It is breathtaking to see how the artists-in-residence have transformed and divided their space.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Abu Dhabi is a land of luxury and excess for travelers. Enjoy the modern feel and energetic nightlife, but I would suggest visiting shops with a more local feel. Al Motahajiba sells traditional head scarves and Muslim dress, but you can also find glamorous party dresses and formal wear. Some of these dresses will leave you breathless (but so might the price tags). And, if you truly want to experience Middle Eastern luxury at its best, shop at The Paris Gallery, where you will find traditional perfumes and exclusive luxury products.

Mumbai, India
Mumbai is a bustling, busy, and sometimes dirty city. My favorite shopping destination was Mangadalas Market, where there are plenty of bargains on everything from textiles to clothing, both modern and traditional. This is a great place to find accent pieces (and fabrics to make your own) for your home. Women should definitely check out Naina’s, where you can order customized saris. And, Cottage Industries Emporium has an unbelievable selection of crafts made by skilled Indian artisans.

Tahiti, French Polynesia
For me, Tahiti is THE place to buy pearls. You can find the natural marvels in every shape, color, and size. At Te Tevake Creations, carved mother of pearl and natural pearls are used in exquisite jewelry combinations. Robert Wan offers pearl jewelry in distinctive designs. If you’re looking for more traditional arts and crafts to prove you were here, try the market Le Marche.

Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul is full of fascinating bazaars and traditional retailers. I loved navigating the stalls at The Grand Bazaar, even though I only got to experience a handful of the loud, bustling marketplace. It has more than 4,000 shops and was established in the 15th Century. The Spice Bazaar is much smaller, but the selection of edible treasures in the form of spices, teas, and more is dizzying. And, at Melda Silverware, the traditional silver is simply stunning.

— The above was written by Wendy Withers, Seed contributor

Ala Moana Center in Honolulu, Hawaii

I stumbled upon the Ala Moana Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, while searching for a place to buy sandals and I ended up spending hours there. Besides having almost 300 popular stores, the indoor/outdoor setup of the Ala Moana Center provides the ideal environment for both enjoying the Hawaiian heat and cooling off.

Chinatown in Seattle, Washington
Having visited the Chinatown districts of many cities, it’s safe to say that Seattle’s International District beats them all. Besides the shopping, it offers numerous art galleries, restaurants and bars. The Venus Karaoke bar is a must for experiencing karaoke the traditional Asian way, in a private room without strangers watching as you belt out a tune.

Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix, Arizona
As I strolled around the Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was walking in a stunning desert park. It’s a place where you can easily spend an entire day. After visiting the shops, I enjoyed an outdoor dinner as I watched the sun set. After the meal I relaxed and painted pottery at the As You Wish Pottery Painting Place, and played video games at Dave & Buster’s while waiting for it to be finished.

Georgetown Flea Market in Washington, DC
The Georgetown Flea Market is perfect for bargain hunters searching for vintage items. Perusing the market is half the fun, rummaging through the antique pieces wondering what you will find. I was lucky enough to come across 3 vintage 1950’s dresses, all for a discounted price significantly lower than anyplace else I have purchased them in the past.

Greenwich Village, New York City
The Greenwich Village shopping experience is unlike any other and is what landed it on this list of the 20 best cities for shopping. Every trip made to Strand Bookstore results in a rare find, and I still love the bright pink fishnets purchased at Ricky’s. The best find of all time? An authentic vintage Chinese wedding gown for the low price of $100, found amongst other unique items at Stella Dallas.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Lancaster, Pennsylvania offers diverse shopping. I scored an Amish rocking chair then enjoyed a family-style Pennsylvania-Dutch home cooked meal. The city’s multiple outlet centers prompt return trips every year, and is especially beneficial for school shopping. Extensive sales often bring the prices down to less than $10 an item, and on my last trip to the Lancaster outlets, I left with 12 items for less than $100.

Siena, Italy
The shopping in Siena, Italy provides a noteworthy alternative to the shops found in Rome or Milan. In addition to the many boutiques, Siena offers a variety of weekend markets. I purchased handmade bowls at a tremendous discount as well as several homemade bottles of olive oil that incidentally were selling for $10 more in Rome.

Piccadilly Circus in London, England
A major intersection in London, at first glance Piccadilly Circus doesn’t seem to have much to offer for shopping. However once the weekend comes, Piccadilly springs to life. The weekend market is the perfect place to purchase small trinkets and inexpensive souvenirs. I was able to score postcards, small purse and handmade paper, all on a student budget.

South Congress Street in Austin, Texas

South Congress Street in Austin, Texas, better known as “SoCo,” epitomizes the Austin experience. With a motto of “Keep Austin Weird”, the city boasts several unique and odd places to shop. Staying at the famous Austin Motel on SoCo allowed me to feel like a local, drinking coffee at the trendy Austin Java while taking in the shopping on a daily basis. I came home with loads of fun accessories, one-of-a-kind clothing items and handmade soaps all made by local Austin folks.

The Grove in Los Angeles, California
If you enjoy shopping at a traditional mall, you will love the last of the 20 best cities for shopping, The Grove in L.A. Instead of housing the shops in one building, The Grove spreads the stores across an outdoor pavilion riddled with water fountains. The atmosphere is ideal for taking in the beautiful Los Angeles weather, and I was able to meet several local people who recommended night spots.

— The above was written by Rebecca Reinstein, Seed contributor

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