‘It’s a revenge’: the global success of the Tahitian dance that Europeans tried to outlaw

Wearing intricate costumes made of plants and adorned with tropical flowers, the women look spectacular. While their torsos remain completely still, somehow, impossibly, their hips are moving in circles so fast it’s almost a blur.

These women are performing traditional Tahitian dance, or Ori Tahiti, in Tahiti’s annual cultural festival, the Heiva. And they’re not alone. Thousands of women across the globe, from Mexico to Japan, are doing it too.

According to a report published by the French ministry of culture in 2017, there were more than 12,000 Ori Tahiti dancers in the United States and more than 10,000 in Latin America. In Japan, the movement has attracted 25,000 dancers and is projected to grow to 500,000 by 2027.

Ori Tahiti is a broad term that encompasses the many traditional dances native to the island of Tahiti, performed by both men and women. The most well-known is the ote’a, a very fast, hip-shaking dance performed by women. Another is the aparima, which features slower, more graceful body movements. Both dances are difficult to master, but absolutely captivating to watch.

“The dance itself, in my eyes it is the most beautiful, powerful, sensuous and expressive,” says Tumata Robinson, a renowned Tahitian choreographer, costume designer and founder of acclaimed dance group Tahiti Ora.

“I think Ori Tahiti is very complete, you know. It’s fierce, but also elegant and powerful, graceful, feminine when we dance. I feel beautiful [when I dance],” says Moena Maiotui, one of Tahiti’s most beloved professional dancers, who has travelled around the world performing, teaching Ori workshops, and sharing Tahitian culture. YouTube videos of her dancing, both solo and with the dance group Tahiti Ora, have racked up millions of views.

“It’s always good to be on stage and to share the culture and what we love and the passion and also tell the story … with our hands and share this moment with the people who are watching.”

Self-expression and connecting to nature are what Ori Tahiti is about for Rina Hanzawa. Born and raised in Tokyo, Hanzawa discovered Ori Tahiti in her early twenties.

“I went to dance school and I found Ori Tahiti there,” says Hanzawa. “At the time I had no clue about Tahitian culture. But I fell in love with Ori Tahiti when I tried it. The Ori movement was so natural for me – it was just very comfortable to do so I felt a strong connection with it.”

What started as a casual hobby soon became an enduring passion, which led to her competing at a national level.

Hanzawa now lives in Australia, where she has set up her own Tahitian dance school, Tai Pererau, in Sydney’s northern beaches.

“My fire of love towards Tahitian culture will never blow out,” she said.

The dance that sparked that fire, however, was almost extinguished. The arrival of Europeans in French Polynesia, along with their religion and laws, saw Ori Tahiti banned or repressed for close to 100 years.

At the end of the 18th century, dance was banned by European missionaries, who labelled it immoral. Then, in 1819, the Pomare Code, a set of laws laid down by the Tahitian monarchy, forbade traditional dancing outright. In 1842 the French protectorate allowed dancing – but with so many conditions that the practice was still repressed.

It was only in the 1960s that the church began to lose influence and traditional dancing really began to be revived. During this time the first modern dance group appeared on the scene, led by Madeleine Mou’a.

Damaris Caire, author of a book titled Ori Tahiti: Between Tradition, Culture and Modernity, says: “Little by little, by doing dance shows at hotels for tourists, Ori Tahiti became popular – even if the local population initially struggled to accept it.”

By the 1970s, the Tahitian cultural revival was in full swing and from the 1980s onwards Ori Tahiti was rediscovered, reinvented and fully embraced by the local population.

Despite a rocky past, Ori Tahiti has today become a way for Tahitians to connect with their ancestors, their land and their language. It is a celebration of a cultural identity and pride that was almost lost to colonisation. Now, it has become one of Tahiti’s best exports.

Hinatea Colombani, a Tahitian cultural expert and director of the Arioi culture and arts centre, says it is particularly satisfying to see Ori Tahiti become popular in the very countries that tried to stamp the practice out two centuries ago.

“For me it’s a revenge, because they celebrate our culture,” she says.

“Ori Tahiti is for me a freedom. A freedom to move, a freedom for the soul … and a really important way to escape from the everyday and connect to my ancestors and to the tradition.”

This year, the Heiva Ori Tahiti Nui international 2021 – Ori Tahiti’s biggest competition – had to be held online due to the pandemic. However, it still managed to attract competitors from 12 countries and territories, including two new participants: New Caledonia and Switzerland.

Ginie Naea, from France, is a dance teacher at the Te Ori Tahiti school in Geneva. The school has more than 70 dancers, aged between eight and 68. After competing for the first time online in the international competition, they came away with fourth place in a group category and a first place for the solo ote’a – which was danced by Naea.

“It was really a superb experience,” says Naea of the competition. “We danced in front of Lake Geneva and the mountains; it was just magic. The best part of the competition was actually the preparation and team cohesion that it necessitated – a connection that’s created when performing. There is a real bond between Ori Tahiti dancers, a real family that is created around the same passion.

“Ori Tahiti is more than a discipline, it’s a way of life. It’s something that really completes me … an art in which I flourish – as a woman, as a friend, as a mother – it’s really part of my everyday life.”

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