By Léo Azambuja
Tahitian dance, known for its excitement, fast drumming, shaking of the hips and challenging steps, has won the hearts of many hula dancers on Kaua‘i. In most Polynesian lu‘au in the island’s hotels and resorts, Tahitian dance is now the main and last act.
But how different is Tahitian dance from Hawaiian hula? And add to the question every culture in the Polynesian Triangle, from Aotearoa to Rapa Nui to Hawai‘i.
“In all of the Polynesian dances, there’s really no difference. They all tell a story through their hands and hips,” said kumu Carol Akau-Casil, adding the drumming and the music also connect all Polynesian cultures.
She danced in the very first Kaua‘i Tahiti Fete back in 1971. The festival, created by kumu Joe Kahauleilo, would run until 1977. Ten years later, Akau-Casil reinstated the festival and ran it until 2000. During that time, in the early 1990s, she brought 50 Tahitian dancers and dignitaries to Kauaʻi, establishing the festival as the connection between Tahiti, Hawai‘i and beyond.
“Today, all other festivals you hear in the United States, Japan, Holland, Canada, stem from our festival,” said Akau-Casil, who is bringing the Kaua‘i Tahiti Fete back this July. She said 71 Tahitians will be here for the event.
In Hawaiian mythology, Tahitian chief La‘amaikahiki is credited with introducing hula dancing to Hawai‘i and also the kaeke, a large drum made from hollowed coconut trunk and shark skin. He was either the son or hānai son of Wailua Chief Moikeha, who sent his youngest son, Kila, to Tahiti to bring La‘amaikahiki here.
Kumu Leilani Rivera Low, of Halau Hula ‘O Leilani, has taught Hawaiian and Polynesian dances for more than 35 years on Kaua‘i. Her latest project, a lu‘au on the grounds of an Eastside resort, offers a cultural and educational experience in an intimate setting by the beach and next to a centenary coconut grove.
“At Lu‘au Makaīwa we like to educate our audience on the difference between the majority of the Polynesian cultures,” said Rivera Low, adding many visitors assume Tahitian and Hawaiian dances are the same. While they have similarities, she said, they are distinct cultures within the Polynesian Triangle.
In Hawai‘i, a hula school is called a halau. In Tahiti, the equivalent is called a pupu ori, said Mi Nei Martins, who runs a Polynesian lu‘au on the South Shore.
Martins, a decorated Tahitian dancer, was the first non-Tahitian resident to be accepted in the prestigious Le Conservatoire Artistique Territorial in Papeete, Tahiti. She said there are three basic kinds of Tahitian dance; otea, ahuroa and aparima.
In the otea, also known as ori Tahiti, dancers shake their hips rapidly to a fast drumbeat. In Hawai‘i, the equivalent to otea would be the olapa, but Hawaiians use their whole bodies and their hands while dancing to a slower drumbeat, according to Akau-Casil.
“The Tahitians call it the ancient way of dancing,” Akau-Casil said of the otea.
The ahuroa, also called ahuroa purotu, is similar to slow Hawaiian hula, with graceful movements and stringed instruments. Riveral Low said in this type of dance, Tahitians tell through intricate hand movements and swaying hips the stories of their land, flowers, people and ali‘i.
“When the Tahitians do ahuroa, they talk with their hands,” Akau-Casil said.
The aparima, Martins said, is a mixture of the two previous dances, with fast-paced dance movements to the music of stringed instruments and drums. Akau-Casil said it’s like the Hawaiian hula with implements, with fast and feisty songs.
The Heiva i Kauaʻi, to be held in August, also celebrates Tahitian dance, heritage and culture.
The timing of both events is not a coincidence. Every July, there’s a monumental celebration in Tahiti called Heiva i Tahiti, comparable to Hawai‘i’s Merry Monarch festival, according to Martins. She said the professor she learned from in Tahiti sets the standards and creates the rules for the Heiva i Tahiti.
Martins was 12 years old when she first visited Tahiti. She had learned hula from her mother, and she knew Tahitian dance too. But seeing the Tahitians dancing in person was “life-changing,” she said.
“I wanted to dance the way they were dancing,” Martins said. “I’d never seen that in Hawai‘i or in California.”
Her friend took her to the Conservatoire Artistique, but the government-ran school wouldn’t accept non-Tahitian residents. The teacher decided to teach Martins at home, and the young girl impressed her so much that she got permission to enter the Conservatoire.
“So for the next five years, I continued to travel back to Tahiti, every summer and holiday season,” she said.
From 14 to 25 years old, Martins won at least 25 of the 30 Tahitian dance solo competitions she entered. At 18 years old, she founded Urahutia productions. Now, 18 years later, she has runs a Polynesian lu‘au at the Sheraton in Po‘ipu. And she has taught hundreds of children, teens and adults to dance Tahitian.
“We do Polynesian shows, but we’re mostly known for our Tahitian dance,” Martins said.
Rivera Low comes from a family of Hawaiian entertainers and musicians. Daughter of legendary musician Larry Rivera, at three years old she was already performing hula onstage at Coco Palms Resort in Wailua, near the same shoreline where Kila supposedly left on a sailing canoe to Tahiti to bring back La‘amaikai hundreds of years ago.
Throughout her career, Rivera Low has taught hula and Tahitian dance to hundreds, won many hula and Tahitian competitions, recorded five Hawaiian albums and has been nominated to the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards and even for a Grammy Award.
Her daughters, Kamalani Bond Montanana and Ariel Leilani Bond, continue her legacy by teaching hula, Tahitian and other Polynesian dances.
Lu‘au Makaīwa is at the Courtyard Marriott at Coconut Beach in Waipouli on Thursday and Sunday from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Visit www.luaumakaiwa.com or call 1-800-763-0120 for more information.
‘Auliʻi Lu‘au is at the Sheraton Kaua‘i Resort in Poʻipū on Monday, Thursday and Saturday starting at 5:30 p.m. Visit www.auliiluau.com for more information.
Call Martins at 821-1903 for Tahitian dance classes at Kapaʻa Neighborhood Center Friday at 3 p.m. for keiki and 4:30 p.m. for teens and adults.
Call Rivera Low at 651-0682 for hula and other dance classes for all genders and ages.
Heiva i Kaua‘i is at Kapaʻa Beach Park Aug. 6 and 7 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit www.heivaikauai.com for more information.
The Kauaʻi Tahiti Fete opens July 6 at Kauaʻi War Memorial Hall at 6 p.m. The festival continues July 9 and 10 at Kapaʻa Beach Park, from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Call 652-1775 or visit www.kauaitahitifete.com for more information.
Additionally, this month, the 8th Annual Kaua‘i Kau Wela Summer Festival will be held at Kamokila Hawaiian Village on the banks of Wailua River, with special guests Chief Heifara of Tahiti and singer-songwriter Larry Rivera. The event opens June 24 from 5 to 8 p.m., with Tahitian dancers, fire dancers and other attractions. On June 25, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., there will be music, mele, Hawaiian chants, Hawaiian food, Polynesian games, crafts and more. Contact Ilima Rivera at 822-5929 or Kamokila Hawaiian Village at 823-0559 for tickets in advance.