Heiva i Tahiti

Moena Maiotui of Tahiti Ora ©G. BoissyDancer 
©N. Perez Dancers ©N. Perez Dancer ©N. Perez Speaker of Orero ©N. Perez Singers of Himene ©N. Perez Ornamented with mother of pearl, the sumptuous costume of a dancer in the group Toakura, in fact, it is the replica of an outfit worn in ancient times by mourners. ©G. BoissyDancers of Heiva i Tahiti ©G. BoissyTuaro Maohi, opening of coconut 
©N. Perez
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Heiva I Tahiti

Every year in July in Papeete

The Heiva I Tahiti, French Polynesia’s largest cultural event is filled with singing and dancing contests, traditional sports and art shows. It’s a huge event in the life of many Polynesians. Each year thousands of people come together to organize the event, putting in long hours in order to put on a great show as well as to help revive and resurrect Polynesian culture. Read on to explore the intense preparations that are made to bring this grand spectacle to life.

The first preparations of the Heiva pass unnoticed. Nevertheless, during the month of March and sometimes earlier, Polynesian fare (houses) start to bustle with activity. From archipelago to archipelago and from island to island the fever starts to touch the entire population, from every age to every social class. This force, this momentum could only come from the Heiva I Tahiti. Each year from mid-June to mid-July for the last 126 years, this cultural event is the culmination of many hours of intense work that brings together over 8000 people.

Dancer ©Nicolas Perez

For long hours, authors, composers, dancers, musicians, costume designers, artists, and athletes happily prepare their performances and creations for the Heiva I Tahiti. The dance troupes must sew thousands of costumes. Usually this is done by “mama” who are knowledgeable about how to collect the thousands of shells and mother of pearl that need to be sewn onto the costumes and decorate the hair of the dancers who change costumes several times throughout the performances. In the Polynesian islands, the craftspeople are hard at work. They sculpt, assemble, polish, cut and craft pieces that will be held in a special place of honor during the event. Everything from the smallest shell to the largest trees will be used as material and patiently worked to perfection.

Moena Maiotui of Tahiti Ora ©G. Boissy

The youngest performers are the ones that open the festivities with the dance school competitions at the beginning of June, called the Heiva Tama Hiti Rau. The youngest dancers are only four years old and will eventually be the future of Polynesian traditional dance. Next the lights shine on the prestigious Song and Dance competition at the scenic To’ata Place in downtown Papeete. During this time artists show their works and athletes prepare for their moments of glory.

But apart from the party and the festivities that happen around the music – the real heart of what the Heiva is – the competitions take center stage. The best dancers, artists, singers, musicians and traditional sports athletes all come up against each other in an ambiance where each takes great pleasure in doing what they love to do most.

Speaker of Orero ©Nicolas Perez
Dancers ©Nicolas Perez
Dancer of Tahiti Ora group ©Matareva Photo
Singers of Himene ©Nicolas Perez
Dancer ©Nicolas Perez
Ornamented with mother of pearl, the sumptuous costume of a dancer in the group Toakura, in fact, it is the replica of an outfit worn in ancient times by mourners. ©G. Boissy
Dancers of Heiva i Tahiti ©G. Boissy

In all, the Heiva I Tahiti is much more than just a cultural show put together for the people of Polynesia, it’s an expression of the country’s heritage, exchanged between the county’s inhabitants that comes directly from the heart. More than any other event, the Heiva shows off the pride that Polynesians have for their culture, which becomes more vibrant through their efforts, through the years.

Tuaro Maohi, opening of coconut ©Nicolas Perez

For more information

Heiva Ori • The Dance Competitions

Dancers of Heiva i Tahiti ©G. Boissy

Dancers of Heiva i Tahiti ©G. Boissy


For the Sake of Art and Beauty

Preparing and practicing for the prestigious dance competitions during the Heiva I Tahiti, is much more intense than one would suspect. Troupes are composed of a minimum of 80 people and the work involved to bring a whole show together is overwhelming at nearly every stage: from the writing of the story of the dance and the choreography to the music, costumes and the hours and hours of rehearsals. All this can be very difficult to organize, not only because of the sheer scope of the show, but because many of the troupe’s members aren’t full time dance professionals and must balance their work and family obligations with the time they have to spend practicing. Often times the dancers work and family will take a back seat to the dancing for three long months. All of this is for a show that will last only a few hours for one night, or maybe two if the troupe goes onto the finals. It’s a huge effort and sacrifice of time for the sake of art and beauty.

Depending on their experience and their motivations for entering the competition, the preparation that each group makes varies, but there are similarities in the way that each organize themselves. At the head of the troupe is the ra’atira, literally “the boss” in Tahitian, whose job is to bring all the most knowledgeable people together and figure out where they will be the most useful; this includes speakers, musicians, singers, choreographers, costume designers and the dancers themselves. Once everything is together, the experience is both exhausting and exciting but this is what puts the pressure on to move everything forward. As John Cadousteau, who has been a ra’atira for the group Tamarii Tipaerui for the last 27 years says, “the Heiva I Tahiti is a drug!”

Another huge job is putting together all of the elaborate costumes. A more, the typical “grass skirt,” is made of purau, a local tree and is one of the essential wardrobe pieces. Other than this there is also a costume made with pareu (local style fabric) and another that is primarily made of plants and foliage. Another difficulty is that the dancers must wear only local materials for most of their costumes. For the plant-based costumes, the dancers have to go out and collect all the ingredients themselves and make their own pieces right before the performance (so they aren’t wilted). Depending on how complicated the plant-based costume’s design is, it can take up to ten hours to put together. Outside of the troupe and in the entourage, everyone hustles to make sure that everything is just right. These excessive preparations are seen as a sort of apprenticeship and as a moment of discovery and sharing of culture. The stress and pressure that accumulates during the practice sessions is finally transformed into an explosive energy for about forty minutes, on the night of the performance.

The dance troupes are made up of Polynesian families: men and women who volunteer their time not just for the love of the show but also for a love of their heritage and a chance to reconnect with their culture. The public’s adoration of the show, shines on the dancers from the crowd, and this is one of the best rewards for the performers for all their hard work.

From the beginning of May, all of the big hotel parking lots, sports centers and school yards in Papeete and around are filled. Because these large, cemented areas aren’t usually used in the evenings, dance troupes come around 6pm to start practicing their song and dance. Percussion can be heard from all corners of town while beautiful voices flow over the rhythms. This is the call of the Heiva I Tahiti.

ce travail avec leurs obligations tant professionnelles que familiales. Leurs quotidiens et leurs priorités familiales sont donc souvent relégués pour certains, au second plan durant trois long mois de préparation et de sacrifices. Et tout ce travail pour à peine quelques heures de spectacle, seulement, avec une représentation, voire deux si le groupe participe à la soirée des lauréats…Un bel exemple d’effort et de volonté pour la pure beauté de l’art.

Selon leurs expériences et selon leurs motivations, la préparation des groupes varie, mais elles se rejoignent cependant sur l’organisation des tâches. A la tête, les ra’atira, ce qui signifie chef en tahitien, sont chargés de rassembler toutes les personnes ressources, les «personnes de savoirs» comme des paroliers, les musiciens, les chanteurs, les chorégraphes, les costumiers, les danseuses et danseurs. Une expérience unique, épuisante et excitante à la fois. Ce qui leur permet d’avancer : la pression ! Pour John Cadousteau, jeune ra’atira de 27 ans du groupe des Tamarii Tipaerui, le «Heiva I Tahiti est une drogue !».

Un immense travail est également nécessaire pour la réalisation des somptueux costumes. Le temps de la soirée, chaque danseur en portera trois différents. le «grand» costume est le plus élaboré. Il comprends obligatoirement un more, une sorte de jupe en fibre de purau, un arbre local. Il faut également une tenue comprenant un pareu ainsi qu’un ensemble «végétal» car composé en grande partie de végétaux fraîchement cueillis. Difficulté supplémentaire : l’utilisation de matière locale est imposé pour une grande partie de ces costumes. L’ensemble végétal reste l’affaire de chaque danseur qui devra aller ramasser tous les ingrédients et les assembler lui-même, un peu avant le spectacle. Selon la complexité du modèle, un costume végétal peut prendre au danseur plus de 10 heures de travail… En dehors de la troupe et dans l’entourage, tout le monde est donc mis à contribution pour que tous soient prêt.

Ces intenses préparatifs sont vécus comme des moments d’apprentissage, de découverte et de partage autour d’une seule et même culture, celle de l’effort. Le stress et la pression accumulée lors des répétitions se transforment en une énergie époustouflante pendant quarante minutes de prestation.

Ces groupes sont composés de familles polynésiennes, d’hommes et de femmes qui oeuvrent bénévolement pour que le spectacle continu mais surtout pour l’amour de leur culture et la reconnaissance d’un patrimoine culturel reçu en héritage. La reconnaissance du public pour un spectacle est à leurs yeux, la meilleure récompense lors du Heiva I Tahiti !

Dès le début du mois de mai, les grands parkings d’hôtels, les salles de sport et les préaux des écoles de la ville de Papeete et de ses environs sont investis. Libres et déserts en soirée, ces espaces goudronnés ou cimentés se remplissent à partir de 18 heures, accueillant alors des troupes de danses et de chants en répétition. Aux quatre coins des villes, retentissent donc les percussions et des voix qui s’échauffent. Tout cela dans la pénombre des lieux insolites : c’est l’appel du Heiva I Tahiti.

Heiva Himene • The Singing Competitions


Melodies from the Heart

The dance competitions take place every other night during the Heiva contest period, and on the nights in-between the dance shows, the singing competitions take place. This section of the Heiva grows more and more popular each year. Each singing group is generally made up of about 60 people of all ages. The majority have come together from church groups of different faiths: Catholic, Protestant, etc. The groups sing one time for around twenty minutes each. Some songs are rhythmic, some melodic, some forceful and others touching. This is a lovely example of the cultural mix of Polynesia because the traditional Polynesian songs are mixed with religious hymns brought so many years ago by the evangelists. These songs could not be what they are today with out the help of elderly people who share their knowledge of ancient songs. With the strong support of their community, young people are also being more drawn in by the art of song. For example Natua Timothé, who just turned twenty is a arata’i himene, the person who sits at the center of the group as a sort of conductor. Enchanted by Polynesian song since he was six years old, Natua is the perfect example of the young people of the islands who are learning to take advantage of the knowledge of their elders to perpetuate the spirit if the Heiva I Tahiti.

Heiva Tu'aro Maohi • Traditional Sports


The Strength of Tradition

Lifting a 90 kg rock, running a foot race carrying 50 kgs of fruit or even just climbing a coconut tree, are technical feats requiring plenty of skill and strength. Polynesian athletes train year round for their sport. But beyond being simply sport, remember that some of these activities are still daily practices, especially in the outer islands. For example, harvesting copra, (coconut meat) requires harvesting, cutting, drying and scooping out the meat. The “coconut husking” competitions take this work and turns it into a race. The goal is to see who can produce a set amount of coconut meat the fastest.

Javelin throwing, rock carrying, fruit carrying races, copra races, outrigger canoe races (sailing and one, two, three and six-men boats) are the sports that Polynesians excel at. The Heiva Tu’aro Maohi brings together over 300 athletes from the five archipelagos from July 11th to 15th.

For traditional Polynesian athletes, the Heiva Tu’aro Maohi is the biggest event of the year. During this event their physical strength and skill draw in admiration from the public in a festive ambiance where the athletes are dressed in pareu and wear flower crowns. From the exceptionally strong farmers from the Australs to the coconut specialists from the Tuamotus and the Society Islands, athletes look forward to the same event: the Heiva Tu’aro Maohi.

Heiva i Tahiti
Heiva i Tahiti
The Heiva I Tahiti, French Polynesia's largest cultural event is filled with singing and dancing contests, traditional sports and art shows.
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