During June and July the rhythm of the heiva festival vibrates throughout French Polynesia; Tahitian dancing (‘ori Tahiti) is at center stage. This art form is deeply rooted in Polynesian society and is enthusiastically enjoyed by all, yet ironically it was once outlawed. It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that dancing re-emerged and took back its rightful place in society.
Once upon a time, song and dance were a vital part of religious ceremonies and rituals that took place several times a year around the large marae, or holy grounds, where the people assembled. A ceremony would be held for the lifting of the rahui, for example, the ban that would be levied on certain creatures or plants in order to allow them to propagate. This celebration would mark the beginning of the harvest. Dancing was also an integral part of military training for warriors. Singing and dancing were synonymous with festivities, as in modern times, and joyous performances were given during heiva. Traditionally dance was performed as a group and it’s interesting to note that in western society dance is more often performed in couples.
Dance was a part of any type of social event that brought people together: welcomings, send offs, marking a particular honor, or just for fun. During the heiva (that were observed by the early navigators and missionaries at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries) the dances were shockingly erotic if not blatantly sexual. Details were omitted from recorded accounts, either from indignation or embarrassment. It’s hard to put into context what the impact of those dances would have had on a society whose values and taboos were quite unlike ours of today. Furthermore, it would be difficult for these first Westerners to describe a dance, or even draw it, since it is a thing of movement that defies static description.
Little by little Tahitian dance began to come out of the shadows and became connected to all of the country’s festivities. From around 1900 the long missionary inspired dresses that the locals had also adopted started to become less popular. Shoulders and arms began to be unveiled again. From the 1830s newly known dancers often came from modest origins and were the pillars of festival places that were in style around the world. In the second half of the 20th century dance started to become considered a more noble practice and thus became the center of big shows, not just a sideline act during festivals. These shows became more encouraged as the tourist industry started to form with regular visits from cruise ships. But Tahitian dance really experienced a re-birth in 1955 when two dynamic women, Mémé de Montluc et Madeleine Moua came on the scene.
Mémé de Montluc formed the dance troupe Arioi that unfortunately only made it through one year. Madeleine (“Mamie”) Moua, a school teacher who loved dance, started another troupe called Heiva Tahiti made up of some of the prettiest girls from some of the biggest mixed families on the island. With this troupe, Mamie Moua organized the shows and established rules that are still in place today. She made magnificent costumes that went with choreography based on ancient legends that she tirelessly researched. As her repertoire grew she put together a live orchestra. This move to rehabilitate traditional dance and the passion surrounding it inspired more groups to form. Many of these troupes were started by dancers from Heiva Tahiti including Coco Hotahota, Paulina Morgan, Gilles Hollande and Joseph Uura. Madeleine Moua’s Heiva Tahiti started a whole new generation of dancers who are still today entrenched in all that is ‘ori Tahiti (Tahitian dance).
People could dance anywhere when the occasion presented itself, but there were also houses set up especially for dance. These consisted of an esplanade protected at one end by a simple awning which sheltered the musicians. The musicians played two types of instruments: the pahu, a shark skin drum which was played with the hands, and the vivo, a nasal flute made of bamboo. Woven coverings were laid out on the ground and the sky was open overhead. The audience sat or stood on three sides of the esplanade, sometimes surrounded by a small fence. Witnesses describe the male dancers as being dressed simply in pareos or a wrap of tapa (a beaten bark cloth). However the costumes of the women hura dancers were extremely elaborate and made deep impressions on the official artists whose numerous sketches saved them for posterity. Hura is a term that applies to the type of dance as well as the costume appropriate to it. This dance was performed for major events such as the fa’ari’i, or the welcome for important visitors. The high priestess and inspiration for this dance was the goddess Hina. The elements that constituted the costume for this dance (which disappeared after 1819) were among the most highly prized of the ancient Polynesians (tapa, feathers, hair) and confirm its importance.
« Games or lascivious pastimes »
Tahiti’s conversion to Christianity at the beginning of the 19th century happened quickly and was formalized in 1819 with the Pomare Code, named for the island’s king. This code, designed by the missionaries, forbids what were thought of as old and “immoral” habits such as tattooing and dance. “All lascivious songs and pastimes are strictly forbidden,” stated the code. Dance thus became a clandestine activity and disappeared from the public arena for some 60 years. During this time, there were testimonies that ‘upa’upa (dance and music parties usually with drinking) did still happen at night in small groups and out of missionary earshot. By 1881 traditional dance was allowed again but only modestly in celebrations of French Bastille Day in July. Because of this, most of the islands in recently annexed French Polynesia, began to celebrate the national holiday with great enthusiasm. At first these festivities were called tiurai. Soon the missionaries found themselves accompanying islanders from all over Tahiti to the big events in Papeete where contests for all the traditional Polynesian activities took place.
The 1970s and 1980s were highlighted by troupes such as Paulina Morgan’s Tiare Tahiti, Coco Hotahota’s Temaeva, Paulette Viénot’s Tiare Tahiti, Joel Avaemai’s Maeva Tahiti, Julien Faatauira’s Porinetia, Teupoo Temaiana’s Fetia and Betty Taputuarai’s Tamarii Mahina. In the 1980s Coco Hotahota’s Temaeva and Gilles Holland’s Iaora Tahiti were the supreme groups. In the 1990s to 2000 Iriti Hoto formed Heikura Nui, Teupoo Temaiana Ahutoru Nui, Tonio Iro Tamarii Papara, Manouche Lehartel Toa Reva, Marguerite Lai O Tahiti e and Makau Foster Tamariki Poerani. And the momentum didn’t stop at the turn of the millennium; Tumata Robinson, Lorenzo Schmitt and Teiki Villant started Les Grands Ballets de Tahiti then Matani Kainuku formed Nonahere and Jean Marie Biret Manahau.
This renaissance of Tahitian dance was stimulated by the reclamation of identity started in the 1950s that paralleled the politics of Pouvana’a a O’opa (and later by artist Henri Hiro) and the independentist and autonomist movements. The reclaiming of identity was expressed through tattoos and dance. Affirmation of Tahitian culture’s comeback was seen in the 1980s through the formation of the Tahitian Academy, la Maison des Jeunes et de la Culture, The Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, the Territory’s Artistic Conservatory, the Arts Center and more. From the 1980s traditional arts received official recognition when dance was taught at the Conservatory and dance schools multiplied. Today there are at least 30 dance schools that together teach more than 5,000 students. If in developed societies – where much tradition has been lost – dance is the art of movement, Polynesian dance is above all the expression of an ancient culture, original and unique, that drinks from the collective spring of memory in its cultural and natural environment.
Manouche Lehartel, Museologist
Tahiti and its islands Museum – Te Fare Mahana
Special Thanks to Jean-Claude Soulier
Musée de Tahiti et des Iles – Te Fare Mahana