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.
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.
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.
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.
For more information
Heiva Ori • The Dance Competitions
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 prioritÃ©s familiales sont donc souvent relÃ©guÃ©s pour certains, au second plan durant trois long mois de prÃ©paration et de sacrifices. Et tout ce travail pour Ã peine quelques heures de spectacle, seulement, avec une reprÃ©sentation, voire deux si le groupe participe Ã la soirÃ©e des laurÃ©atsâ€¦Un bel exemple dâ€™effort et de volontÃ©Â pour la pure beautÃ© de lâ€™art.
Selon leurs expÃ©riences et selon leurs motivations, la prÃ©paration des groupes varie, mais elles se rejoignent cependant sur lâ€™organisation des tÃ¢ches. A la tÃªte, les raâ€™atira, ce qui signifie chef en tahitien, sont chargÃ©s de rassembler toutes les personnes ressources, les Â«personnes de savoirsÂ» comme des paroliers, les musiciens, les chanteurs, les chorÃ©graphes, les costumiers, les danseuses et danseurs. Une expÃ©rience unique, Ã©puisante et excitante Ã la fois. Ce qui leur permet dâ€™avancerÂ : la pressionÂ ! Pour John Cadousteau, jeune raâ€™atira de 27 ans du groupe des Tamarii Tipaerui, le Â«Heiva I Tahiti est une drogueÂ !Â».
Un immense travail est Ã©galement nÃ©cessaire pour la rÃ©alisation des somptueux costumes. Le temps de la soirÃ©e, chaque danseur en portera trois diffÃ©rents. le Â«grandÂ» costume est le plus Ã©laborÃ©. Il comprends obligatoirement un more, une sorte de jupe en fibre de purau, un arbre local. Il faut Ã©galement une tenue comprenant un pareu ainsi quâ€™un ensemble Â«vÃ©gÃ©talÂ» car composÃ© en grande partie de vÃ©gÃ©taux fraÃ®chement cueillis. DifficultÃ© supplÃ©mentaireÂ : lâ€™utilisation de matiÃ¨re locale est imposÃ© pour une grande partie de ces costumes. Lâ€™ensemble vÃ©gÃ©tal reste lâ€™affaire de chaque danseur qui devra aller ramasser tous les ingrÃ©dients et les assembler lui-mÃªme, un peu avant le spectacle. Selon la complexitÃ© du modÃ¨le, un costume vÃ©gÃ©tal peut prendre au danseur plus de 10 heures de travailâ€¦ En dehors de la troupe et dans lâ€™entourage, tout le monde est donc mis Ã contribution pour que tous soient prÃªt.
Ces intenses prÃ©paratifs sont vÃ©cus comme des moments dâ€™apprentissage, de dÃ©couverte et de partage autour dâ€™une seule et mÃªme culture, celle de lâ€™effort. Le stress et la pression accumulÃ©e lors des rÃ©pÃ©titions se transforment en une Ã©nergie Ã©poustouflante pendant quarante minutes de prestation.
Ces groupes sont composÃ©s de familles polynÃ©siennes, dâ€™hommes et de femmes qui oeuvrent bÃ©nÃ©volement pour que le spectacle continu mais surtout pour lâ€™amour de leur culture et la reconnaissance dâ€™un patrimoine culturel reÃ§u en hÃ©ritage. La reconnaissance du public pour un spectacle est Ã leurs yeux, la meilleure rÃ©compense lors du Heiva I TahitiÂ !
DÃ¨s le dÃ©but du mois de mai, les grands parkings dâ€™hÃ´tels, les salles de sport et les prÃ©aux des Ã©coles de la ville de Papeete et de ses environs sont investis. Libres et dÃ©serts en soirÃ©e, ces espaces goudronnÃ©s ou cimentÃ©s se remplissent Ã partir de 18 heures, accueillant alors des troupes de danses et de chants en rÃ©pÃ©tition. Aux quatre coins des villes, retentissent donc les percussions et des voix qui sâ€™Ã©chauffent. Tout cela dans la pÃ©nombre des lieux insolitesÂ : câ€™est lâ€™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.