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Dancing in the Isles: Tahiti Gets Set to Party

4 minute read
Ian Lloyd Neubauer

When European sailors first arrived in Tahiti in the late 18th century, they were gobsmacked by the extravagant displays of song and dance. But the British missionaries that followed didn’t approve and used their proxy King Pomare II to ban indigenous performance arts.

Thus things remained until 1881, when France’s navy defeated the British and annexed French Polynesia. To win over the locals, they overturned Pomare’s edict and launched a national day of celebration coinciding with Bastille Day on July 14.

Now in its 130th year, the Heiva i Tahiti — the Festival of Tahiti — has evolved into a monthlong extravaganza of song, dance competitions and an olympiad of warrior sports that ranks as the South Pacific’s own Carnaval. Here are the must-sees.

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A hybrid of Christian hymns and traditional Polynesian chants, himene are the most emotive element of the Heiva. Performed by choirs up to 100 strong and led by a conductor who begins with his back to the audience, himene consist of melodies launched by female sopranos, followed by men emitting nasal chants and low rhythmic tones. Male and female singers then bring their voices together while soloists throw in offbeat modulations. When the conductor believes the choir has reached perfect harmony, he turns to face the audience and adds his voice to the song.

Twenty-one himene teams will compete at Papeete’s To’ata Square starting July 5, the night of the opening ceremony, through July 12. Tickets are available at the Carrefour Shopping Mall on Pomare Boulevard.

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In the first two weeks of July, professional dance troupes from all the archipelagos of Tahiti converge on To’ata Square for a dance meet of epic proportions. Performances last about 45 minutes and feature rows of up to 200 dancers. Dressed in grass skirts and elaborate headpieces, they’re accompanied by orchestras of indigenous instruments. Musicians beating sharkskin drums lead the melee, followed by the sounds of nasal flutes, conch shells and ukuleles.

Routines incorporate swordplay, fire twirling and Polynesia’s precolonial folklore. Last year’s winner, the Tahiti Ora group, told the story of a king who’d gone blind in old age. His witch doctor dreams of a green-eyed beauty from a neighboring island who he claims can restore the king’s eyesight — if sacrificed to their gods. The ensuing war between the islands was replicated on stage with drama worthy of an opera or ballet.

This year’s winning troupe will be named at an awards ceremony on July 19, followed by an encore performance by the new titleholder and runners-up on July 21. Their members will be received as heroes by the communities they represent and by Heiva fans across the nation. “It’s a moment when everyone shares a profound sense of culture but also one when there’s a great deal of friction, because everyone wants to win,” says Tumata Robinson, leader of Tahiti Ora. “If they don’t win, they cry, but the winners cry as well.”

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The martial component of the Heiva will be held on the grounds of the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, tel: (689) 548 435, on Bastille Day weekend. In the javelin event, competitors display astonishing precision as they launch spears at coconuts set atop 10-m-high poles. In centuries gone by, the heads of slain enemies were used, though the sport has been adapted to make it spectator-friendly.

Then there’s the stone-lifting event in which men and women pick up boulders weighing up to 150 kg and hold them in position for as long as they can. The race of the fruit lifters, on July 17, is even more colorful. Honoring the age-old practice of hauling bundles of fruit from the interior to the coast, it sees men, women and children run barefoot races while balancing bundles of bananas, papaya and other tropical fruits on shoulder poles.

Lastly, don’t miss the va’a — the Heiva’s outrigger-canoe races. More than 1,500 paddlers will vie for supremacy in the waters of Papeete Lagoon in a series of heats that started on June 28. They culminate with a memorial race on July 14 dedicated to the founder of modern-day canoe racing in Tahiti, Edouard Maamaatu. To’ata Square is the best vantage point to see these races.

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For more information and a detailed schedule of events and venues, visit tahiti-tourisme.com, look under “About” and click “Heiva i Tahiti.”

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