Polynesian fire dance

A spectacular demonstration at an edition of the Te Hahi Nui, the fire knife dance competition, held annually at the Meridien Hotel in Tahiti. © Larry Photography© G. BoissyA chief who had fought during Samoan tribal wars. © DRDanseuse cérémonielle des Samoa par Thomas Andrew (1890)© Museum of New Zealand Te Papa TongarewaThis year the Tahiti Meridien fire/flaming knife dance competition held its 20th annual edition. © Larry Photography© Larry Photography© Larry Photography© TahitiZoom – Stéphane Sayeb© Larry Photography© Larry Photography

Fire dance is an art in its own right that has evolved tremendously over last decades. From the traditional custom performed during ritual ceremonies to the breathtaking island night artistic show displayed in hotels, this cultural heritage is a source of pride for the Ma’ohi people, highlighting the bravery of a few initiated ones.

Samoan martial origins

Historically, Polynesian fire dance originates from the ‘ailao or knife dance that Samoans were performing during tribal wartime. After winning a battle, triumphant warriors cut off the head of the rival chief and brought it to the village as a trophy for their own leader. The whole tribe was then gathering to celebrate the victory in a ceremony called ta’alolo. Comprised of ta’a meaning « uncontrollable » and of lolo signifying « tide », this ceremony’s highly evocative name was inspired by tidal waves that often hit the area, sweeping away everything in their path. While celebrating this ritual, villagers were sitting around the malae, meeting place in the middle of which their chief was presiding. Before them, a procession of warriors was marching, singing and chanting their feats.

Towards fire knife dance

In the 19th century, following the passing of whale hunters on the island, the end of the war club was replaced by a hard-metal blade, making this knife even more formidable. After the Americans annexed Samoa and the end of tribal wars, this dance continued to evolve through contact with missionaries. For instance, it gradually lost its martial spirit but was however kept in ceremonies held to welcome high-ranking people. The songs that formerly beat time for rituals were replaced by the vigorous banging on percussion instruments. The expatriate Samoans, who exported this dance throughout the Pacific, were occasionally influenced by foreign practices. This is how fire would have been added late, in 1946, by Freddy Letuli, a young Samoan dancer who was touring the United States. Locally inspired by a Hindu fire-eater and a dancer handling flaming torches, he decided to add fire to his traditional dance performance: thereby he became the father of fire knife dance in its modern form.

At the front line, two of them were displaying a pole called amo on which the head of their adversary was hung. In front of them, their leader, covered in the blood of the enemy, was running from one end of the spot to the other in a mad race or mo’emo’e. Then, the latter performed the ‘ailao: while acting out the movements executed during the fight, he was concretely knocking everything out in his path by twirling his weapon. Like a tsunami, he would overthrow plants, trees, animals and even anyone daring to stand in his way. In short, such a practice was no less a show of strength and invincibility than an act of defiance, but also the expression of the warrior’s pride and total respect for his chief and his people. The weapon thus used was a nifo’oti, a short wooden machete whose cutting edge was serrated while the opposite side was ended with a hook. The wood would sometimes be engraved and inlaid with shark teeth or bones.

Moreover, it should be noted that in ancient times Kiwi neighbors were using poïs, a pair of balls spinning at the end of strings, to develop wrist strength and flexibility for the handling of weapons. Similarly, their use was maintained to brighten up traditional ceremonies. However, it was only in the 1950s that the strings of this tool were swapped for metallic chains and their balls for Kevlar wicks to set them afire in the style of Samoan fire knives. Given the great success achieved through the fire dance shows, other fire props were developed and successively used such as fans or hoops.

Fire dance pioneers of the Fenua

Nowadays, fire knife dance is mainly practiced across the Polynesian Triangle on the occasion of dance shows or contests. Thus, competitions are regularly organized between Pacific islands but also in French Polynesia. On the island of Tahiti, the symbolic figure of Polynesian traditional arts, Julien Faatauira, devoted his life to developing and sharing his passion for music and dance. Excellent percussionist of the Conservatory traditional orchestra for thirty years, talented dancer and ‘ori Tahiti group founder, he learnt fire dancing but also saber dancing, the ‘ori tipi, which has almost disappeared today. Both disciplines that he managed to master to perfection allowed him to travel around the world. He was one of the pioneers who imported fire dance in Tahiti. Subsequently, he passed down the torch to his nephew Léon Teai by integrating him in his O’Porinetia troup in 1974 and providing his training from a tender age. The latter was declared the winner of the first edition of the contest organized at the hotel Le Méridien Tahiti at the end of the 1990s. During this event, entitled Te Ahi nui, Léon was assessed on the fire handling and the speed of execution of compulsory figures but also on his style, his creativity and his costume. Several years later, after the victory of his own son Dana, he created the association Te Tama Ahi to accompany young Polynesians in the apprenticeship of this discipline and to lead them to the World Championship that is held every year at the Polynesian Cultural Center of Laie in Hawaii.

From local competition to World Championship

Every year, winners of the Te Ahi Nui are offered an airline ticket to attend this international top-level championship. There, they can rely on Leon’s guidance and unconditional support. That is how he took under his wings the Tahitian Joseph Cadousteau, who won at home in 2006, by bringing him wise advise and outside view. Joseph improved his technique year after year and even managed to juggle with three knives. He became the first Tahitian to win the World Championship in 2012 and repeated the feat the following year and in 2015. According to Leon, what led his mentee to the top was his iron discipline, his humility, his immense respect for this art but also the support of his close relatives and team. In his opinion, every dancer carries his own value but unity makes strength. Fire knife dance is a subtle mix of dexterity, speed, creativity, physical and mental force. Moreover, beyond a mere physical training, fire dancer appeal to the mana of their ancestors to learn to master one of the most dangerous elements: fire. Despite the risk of being burnt and cut, the game is worth the candle as its mastery is very much exciting. This special way of « playing » with fire passes from generation to generation, from teacher to student who will become himself the guarantor of this cultural legacy. Today, Leon’s ultimate wish is to pass on his expertise to new generations. And he admits himself that fire dance has somehow become his second wife, for whom his flame is still burning, as if it was the first day. Even if fatigue begins to set in with age, he still has fire in his belly that he promises to keep until his last breath.

Julie Doumic


To celebrate the 20th edition of this event, the hotel Le Méridien Tahiti will offer you two outstanding evenings on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 of October 2018. Information and bookings at 40 47 07 34 or by email at restauration@lemeridien-tahiti.pf

Polynesian fire dance
Fire dance is an art in its own right that has evolved tremendously over last decades. From the traditional custom performed during ritual ceremonies to the breathtaking island night artistic show displayed in hotels, this cultural heritage is a source of pride for the Ma'ohi people, highlighting the bravery of a few initiated ones.
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