The History of Tahitian Dance

By Caitlin Kelly
Tahiti.

Tahitian dance is exuberant and vibrant, and has a long history of cultural significance. These dances are associated with certain events and occasions, and there are multiple dance styles. Tahitian dance has had a difficult history, but despite setbacks to this artistic expression, it remains a popular and recognizable aspect of Tahitian cultural tradition.

Purpose

A Tahitian dancer.

In the early age of Tahitian dancing, performances were symbolic and significant, not just an art form. Native people of Tahiti had different dances for different occasions. For example, there was a dance that was performed to greet guests at an official ceremony. Other dances were designated for prayer and worship ceremonies dedicated to ancient gods. Some dances were more personal, and people danced to challenge an adversary to combat or to seduce and entice a potential mate. Tahitian myths and legends were acted out through traditional dance.

Types

Traditional Tahitian costume.

There are many different styles of Tahitian dance, and the variations have to do with movement and performers. One of the most popular dance styles is ote'a, which is performed by a large group of either all male or all female dancers. Traditional costumes are worn for this, as well as most other styles. A dance called a hivinau is usually performed as the last dance of a ceremony. It involves a group of dancers led by one dancer who may improvise some movements. Aparima dancers use intricate hand movements and gestures, and these dances usually mimic scenes from everyday life, such as courtship or fishing. All of the Tahitian dance styles are stylistically complex and athletic.

Music

Traditional drums.

Tahitian dances are performed to the accompaniment of traditional music. Drums, made of hollowed-out tree limbs and shark skin, feature heavily in Tahitian music. Dance music is strongly rhythmic and powerful, and these qualities are also characteristic of the dancing. Other instruments include the conch and the nose flute. The conch, called a pu, is blown like a horn to create a deep, reverberating tone. Nose flutes, called vivo, are made from bamboo tubes with holes carved into them, and they are played by exhaling out of the nose and into the flute. These traditional instruments and music styles have been used to accompany Tahitian dancing throughout history.

History

British colonists found Tahitian dance to be provocative and offensive.

It isn't certain when or how Tahitian dancing originally developed. It is a practice that dates back to ancient Tahitian people and their Maohi ancestors. Early native Tahitians had complex systems of religion, etiquette, social structure and artistry. This included dance and music. Troupes of professional dances, called Arioi, traveled the island and performed at ceremonies and celebrations. Dance was an important and popular cultural expression in Tahiti, but it suffered a setback during the 1800s. Early British colonists and missionaries who came to Tahiti found traditional Tahitian dances provocative and offensive. These dances usually included revealing traditional costumes, and some sensual movements and subject matter. In 1820, the British colonists abolished most forms of dance in Tahiti.

Revival

Traditional dance has regained its importance in Tahiti.

Traditional dance was illegal in Tahiti until the early 20th century, when it began a slow and hesitant revival. Traditional costumes were not used during this period, and only the hands, feet and face of the dancer could be exposed. In the 1950s, the revival of Tahitian dance gained momentum, and there was a movement to preserve and revitalize the traditional styles. The style had been influenced by European presence and interaction and the changing religion of the country. Despite the cultural changes in Tahiti since the dances were first born, Tahitian dance has regained its importance as a unique expression of Tahitian culture and history.

About the Author

Caitlin Kelly is a freelance writer who has been employed by multiple authors to provide editing and continuity assistance. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in international studies, with a focus in peace and conflict resolution, from the University of North Florida.