So you think you can dance the otea?
Tahiti's flamboyant Heiva festival helps keep Polynesian traditions alive
You can cut the anticipation with a machete as the spot lights dim under a canopy of southern stars. All eyes are fixed on the stage in the French Polynesian capital of Papeete’s waterfront amphitheater. Tonight’s audience is here to watch dozens of dancers, singers and musicians perform in Heiva Tahiti, a spectacular annual month-long celebration of traditional Polynesian culture.
Backstage, dancer Maire Teihotaata nervously adjusts her elaborate headdress. Her skirt is made of coconut bark and hibiscus flowers, with a wide belt slung low on her tall, lithe frame, and decorated with mother-of-pearl, shells, natural fibers, and colorful seeds. Bathed in intoxicating tropical flower scents with jet-black hair flowing to her waist, this 37-year old government communications specialist could have stepped out of a Gauguin painting.
Suddenly, slit and base drums carved from hollowed out tree trunks begin fiercely pounding sensual rhythms — the vernacular of a timeless language. Floodlights bathe the stage in lavender, orange and emerald hues as Teihotaata and dozens of other athletic young male and female dancers begin gyrating with astonishing speed, their hips blurring as they acrobatically dance in unison to the frenetic beat. This is ‘otea', the ancient Polynesian dance that re-enacts a thousand stories, from ancient inter-island warfare to the flight of a butterfly.
Tonight’s show features the most mesmerizing singing, dancing and drumming that this cluster of island archipelagos the size of Western Europe has to offer. French Polynesia – and especially its crown jewel island of Bora Bora – is best known as a dream honeymoon destination, with sparkling aquamarine atoll waters, black sand beaches and a towering backdrop of emerald mountains. Now, this ancient culture long suppressed by colonial masters is undergoing a revival, highlighted in spectacular events like Heiva (the Tahitian word for festival).
"Heiva is in my blood and not dancing is unimaginable," says Teihotaata. Her performing group, Temaeva, which means ‘welcome’ in Tahitian, has won numerous international competitions since it was formed in 1962. "I've also taught my daughter to dance, sing and play traditional instruments so she won't forget where she came from,” Teihotaata adds.
Maintaining age-old traditions hasn't always been easy here. Ori Tahiti (Tahitian dance) was a central part of Polynesian culture for centuries before European Protestant missionaries arrived. Finding such overtly "erotic" public displays deeply offensive, they managed to convert King Pomare II to Christianity in 1807. He then promptly banned Ori Tahiti. So this ancient art form went underground, along with the knowledge of how to make dance costumes from vegetable fibers, shells and flowers.
The French colonizers occasionally allowed sanitized versions of Tahitian dance to be performed as part of their annual July 14th Bastille Day celebrations. But it wasn't until 1956 that Madeleine Moua, a Papeete high school principal, spearheaded the true revival of Ori Tahiti by forming the dance troupe, Heiva Tahiti. Renewed interest in costume design soon followed and dance eventually resumed its rightful place as a vibrant part of Tahitian culture.