I’ll tell you one thing about Polynesians: they can dance like nobody’s business. Luckily for us, July is the best time to watch them dance. Every island in French Polynesia celebrates heiva this month, which is a version of mini-Olympics here in paradise. Professionals and amateurs of all ages vie for top placement in a variety of categories, including dance, chanting, canoe racing, and coconut husking (seriously). There’s even a Mr. and Miss Heiva contest on each island for teenagers. The winners come to Papeete in Tahiti to compete for the honor of attending international beauty pageants.
Rob and I have been to three different heiva events in Tahiti so far, including a small-town beauty pageant in Tautira on Tahiti Iti. The pageant reminded me of Missoula’s Off the Rack production, with 16-year-old contestants parading around in creative leaf/flower costumes, bathing suits and “city wear” (which is what the rest of the world wears to the beach). The audience clapped along to pop music remixed with a reggae beat. Fun. We also attended two nights of totally awesome singing and dancing competitions in Papeete.
Let me paint you a picture of the Papeete heiva. Outdoor bleachers surround a football field-sized dance floor in front of a stage filled with drums along the waterfront downtown. We wait patiently as the story told by the upcoming dance is explained in French, English and Tahitian, and then lean forward in anticipation as 20+ musicians take the stage. The drums begin. The lights come up. 60 women shimmy onto stage from all sides, wearing coconuts, flowers, leaves, moss and brightly colored headresses. As their hips circle at lightening speed, 50 men stomp onto stage with their knees waving and their arms swirling, wearing bands of grass around their arms and legs and groins. An occasional grass band or coconut falls off accidentally amidst the shaking body parts, adding to the excitement.
The dancers circle each other, and move in diagonals across the stage. The women have rivers, blankets, reams of thick hair that falls all the way to their hips (after dancing, Polynesians seem to specialize in growing beautiful hair). Spectacular tattoos adorn many of the performers. Flutes and singers join the drums to tell a story of love or war or gods or villages. They change costumes, change characters, change rhythms every few minutes during the hour-long performance, which is interspersed with solos and Tahitian narrators. The scene is one of the most colorful and stimulating performances I’ve ever seen, a concert, play and dance recital all rolled into one.
And that’s just one act. Each night of heiva consists of four different performing groups, which come from all over the Marquesas, Tuamotu, Austral and Society islands.
After a four-hour stint with my feet keeping time at the heiva, I was inspired to try my hand at some Tahitian hip-shaking the next day. Hula dancing was my first true dancing love. My sister and I took classes for a couple of years when we were growing up, proudly performing at backyard luaus in our fancy island costumes. Of course, that was 20 years ago, so my hips felt pretty rusty as I shimmied in a hidden corner of the park near our anchorage. I was also out of breath in about three minutes.
Although I kept up with exercise on passage, the last couple of months have been lax on aerobic activity outside of swimming. My legs and lungs just aren’t cooperating with my mind’s vision of how to mimic the colorful island choreography. Bummer. I’m totally taking the jumprope to shore the next few mornings to get back in shape. After all, you never know when they might call for volunteers from the audience at the next heiva dance off. I’m totally their woman, even if my hair is three feet too short.