Fete in the Garden

Each summer, Heiva i Kaua‘i brings the intensity and sensuality of Tahitian dance to the Garden Isle
Story by Sonny Ganaden. Photos by PF Bentley.

The midday summer sky turns gray over the field at Kapa‘a Beach Park. The wind drops and goes quiet before a sudden rain pours on twenty dancers performing in costumes made of plants from nearby forests and gardens. A thousand spectators crowd under tarps encircling the grass stage.

As the dancers rush off to the drumming of the ten-piece band, cheers and applause mix with the drumbeat of rain on the tarps. The squall stops as quickly as it starts, and the sun emerges to lift a damp heat off the grass. 

“Ia orana and aloha! It feels like Tahiti, doesn’t it?” Cathy Temanaha shouts the traditional Tahitian and Hawaiian greetings into a microphone as she strides out onto the wet field. “We are Te Vai Ura Nui, which translates as ‘the Great Fire on the Water,’ and it’s our pleasure to perform for you. What you just saw is the ‘ōte‘a, the traditional group dance of French Polynesia. Before we continue, we’d like to thank and dedicate our show to Carol Akau-Casil, who organized this event for many years and passed away a few weeks ago. We hope to remember her spirit today.” Temanaha gestures over her shoulder to two columns of female dancers wearing thin pareo tied to form gowns and adorned with crowns of thatched coconut leaves and ginger. “Please give a round of applause as our dancers perform the ‘ahuroa!” 

For almost fifty years, Heiva i Kaua‘i has been the premier festival of Tahitian dance and culture in Hawai‘i. The festival hosts one day for solo competitions and a second for group ‘ōte‘a, ‘aparima and ‘ahuroa, the three main forms of modern Tahitian dance.

Temanaha leaves the field, and Meleane Uta sings “Ua here ho‘i ia oe,” accompanied by the strumming of a Tahitian banjo (an ‘ukulele-like instrument with eight strings) and the thump of bass drums in waltz time. Ten female dancers step into formation as an overhead Lahaina noon sun brightens the arena, rendering the dancers nearly shadowless. 

The Heiva i Kaua‘i has been a late summer event on the Garden Isle for nearly half a century. It’s one of dozens of similar events held internationally that perpetuate the performing arts of the South Pacific. Kaua‘i’s fete was started in 1972 by dance instructors Joseph Kahaulelio and Van Francisco. One of Kahaulelio’s dancers, Carol Akau-Casil, organized the festival in 1987, with one day for solo competitions and a second for group ‘ōte‘a, ‘aparima and ‘ahuroa, the three main forms of Tahitian dance in the modern era. Akau-Casil brought in delegations from Tahiti for exhibitions and worked with organizations across Hawai‘i and the Mainland to compete. For several years Akau-Casil organized events on the Mainland and on Hawai‘i Island, as well as a separate competition earlier in the summer called the Kauai Tahiti Fete. Her Kaua‘i-style two-day festival format has since become the template for events held around the world, in Paris, San Jose, Mexico City and Tokyo. Since 2010, Heiva i Kaua‘i has been run by a group led by Jo and Tepairu Manea. At Akau-Casil’s urging, the husband and wife have become de facto Tahitian ambassadors. “Carol would be happy if she were here today,” says Tepairu of his former friend and mentor, “to see that Tahitian culture is going strong.” 

Despite their differences, Hawaiian and Tahitian cultures are inseparable. It’s believed that the first Hawaiians were voyagers from what is now French Polynesia, and waves of trade and migration occurred between these archipelagos, ending a few hundred years before the Europeans first entered Polynesia. The loss and resurgence of Tahitian traditional arts mirrors that of Hawai‘i’s; as in Hawai‘i, native arts were suppressed with missionary zeal. From 1820 to 1842 native dance was illegal in French Polynesia. A resurgence of Tahitian cultural pride developed in the late nineteenth century as groups performed the ‘aparima, now accompanied by guitar, Tahitian banjo strung with nylon fishing line and pahu, the wood-and-hide drums of Polynesia. 

In 1956, as tourism was on the rise in Tahiti, a school principal and dance instructor named Madeleine Moua revived ori Tahiti (Tahitian dance) at the Tiurai (July) festival held in Papeete in celebration of Bastille Day. Her dance troupe called it Heiva (festival), which later became the name of a separate festival of arts held in the summer, created to celebrate both traditional and contemporary forms of Tahitian dance. Composed of both performers from neighbor islands and international visitors, the Heiva i Tahiti festival included group and solo competitions and feats of athleticism from everyday village life that were disappearing in the twentieth century: tree climbing, coconut husking, carrying stones or racing while carrying a yoke of heavy banana stalks. Dancers were judged based on their skill, costume and adherence to tradition, even as those traditions were rapidly changing.

Hawai‘i took note. In July 1962 the first Hawai‘i-Tahiti Fête was held in Waikīkī at the International Market Place over the course of nine days. Most of the attendees were visitors, but the new state’s politicians and US dignitaries also joined in. Lieutenant Governor James Kealoha played a prerecorded conversation over the loudspeaker in which he had invited Aimé Grimald, the Tahitian governor, to the festival. At the same time, the Polynesian Cultural Center created several “villages” demonstrating traditional arts and culture on its walking tour, including a group dedicated to the preservation of Tahitian culture, run by Tahitians. Tavana Anderson created a pan-Polynesian dance and dinner show on the Waikīkī strip titled Tavana’s Polynesia. Under Anderson’s direction the Tahitian ‘ōte‘a, which celebrates ordinary life and tells stories of gods, became a standard opening act at visitor lū‘au. 

In the early years of the festival there were a handful of instructors and dancers across Hawai‘i who took ori Tahiti (Tahitian dance) seriously. Now there are hundreds. At last year’s festival ninety-nine solo performers competed for a spot as a finalist.

Teaching Tahitian dance and music is an ‘ohana-friendly way to make a living. Several of Moua’s students—Coco Hotahota, Roiti Tahauri Sylva and others—traveled the world teaching workshops, often subsidized by government and businesses, which introduced non-Tahitians to the athletic and demanding practice of Tahitian dance. In Tahiti, as in other indigenous communities, there are spirited debates over judging standards and whether to include non-Polynesians, and it’s common to see politicians giving away trophies or performing themselves. 

“We began Te Vai Ura Nui in 1983, but we didn’t compete until 1987,” says Cathy Temanaha, manning a booth selling mother-of-pearl jewelry and pareo between performances. “The group was first comprised of the family and dancers from Waikīkī shows who wanted to take Tahitian culture seriously. Since those days the dancing itself has changed—the abilities and talents have gone up dramatically.” In the early 1980s there were a handful of instructors and dancers across Hawai‘i who took ori Tahiti seriously. Now there are hundreds. “Traveling with a group takes months of fundraising and organizing,” Temanaha says. “Every dancer has to learn the routines, make costumes, ideally culminating with a trip to Tahiti. It takes years of practice to get a soloist ready to compete.” A creative dancer can adapt to difficult transitions or time signatures in the music, making improvisation look like months of practiced choreography.

“I was probably four years old when my mom had me onstage at the Hyatt in Waikīkī,” remembers Tyrone Temanaha Jr., the lead drummer for Te Vai Ura Nui. “My mom and Auntie Cathy were in the show, and my dad played in the band. I was drumming by ten years old.” Tyrone also leads the band during the solo competition, which begins at 9 a.m. and ends sometime around sunset. Tyrone’s instrument, the toere, is played with one hand and has evolved rapidly since the early 1990s, when drummers from across the Tahitian cultural diaspora began to emulate the sounds of the group Kei Tawhiti, led by Carlos Tuia. “The instruments are the same, but the sound of drumming has changed since I was a kid,” says Temanaha. In place of a single toere player, Tuia’s band split the instrumentation into three band members playing intricate, separate parts. Listen carefully and you can hear the rhythms of American rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop, even heavy metal, sped up to triple time. During the ‘ōte‘a, Te Vai Ura Nui drummers oscillate between loud and soft, from the power and speed of hardcore punk to a bossa nova groove. Often the band gets a harder workout than the dancers.

The tamarii (children) division at Heiva i Kaua‘i is a crowd favorite, and it’s grown considerably since the festival began: Whereas a few dozen children participated in the 1980s, now there are hundreds of kids from across the Pacific competing as soloists.

Lani Costido listens to the drummers while she pleats crimson ginger petals into a top that she’ll match with a bright red pareo—her costume for her solo category, na vāhine (women) age 25 to 30. In the solo costume division, the Heiva i Kaua‘i is not to be missed. Whereas ‘ōte‘a costume tends to be larger and heavier—built to withstand two shows a night for several months—a soloist dances light. Kaua‘i has an abundance of all things grown, so costumes are limited only by the creativity and skill of the maker, and they range from the simple to the extravagant. An excellent costume maker is part florist: In a rush, bougainvillea flowers can be plucked and woven with ti leaves for a heipo‘o, or head lei. And one has to know one’s flowers: Hibiscus looks great for daytime shows but closes at night, whereas ‘ōhi‘a and pīkake make excellent lei but look a bit too Hawaiian for a Tahitian outfit. Performers know how long they have before their costumes biodegrade: A ti leaf skirt can last over a week of tough dancing. A tiare (gardenia) lei wilts within hours. By the end of summer, forests and gardens on Kaua‘i are so abundant that entire troupes of dancers can be outfitted with fresh materials.

When Costido won the overall vahine soloist in 2005, she was given a black pearl pendant by the mayor of Kaua‘i. “Like most of the dancers here, I’ve been dancing most of my life,” she says. “I was doing the Marriott show by age 15. In 2007 I was a dancer with Ori Uvira for five different shows in Canada—it was my first time seeing snow. Dancing is a way to see the world.” When I ask why she enters every year, she responds as if the answer is obvious. “We do this because it ties Hawai‘i to Tahiti—the culture of the Pacific. This is who we are.” 

I’ve been attending the fete for over twenty years. The people I know best from across the Pacific I know through performance. In 1999 my sister won overall vahine dancer in a heated dance-off on a rainy Saturday afternoon against Agnes Matila from O‘ahu and Minei Oliver from Kaua‘i. That competition ran on the front page of the Garden Island newspaper, making them teenage celebrities. The next year, my friend Kalei Kinimaka and I were entered into the couples division by Auntie Cathy Temanaha, and we spent the nights before in temporary bungalows in Anahola, built for Habitat for Humanity aid workers there to help the island recover after Hurricane Iniki in 1997. We practiced in the pitch black of a hot summer night, speaking the beats, using flashlights to mark the boundaries of the stage, learning choreography by feel.

More than these moments, I remember the Tahitian names for the sea, mountains and flowers, and phrases from the love songs I danced to. For those of us who grew up attending summer fetes, a costume of fresh flowers and leaves destined to wilt in a matter of hours is a form of high fashion. For us, a handful of dancers accompanied by a band can transform a seaside park on a muggy afternoon into the finest stage in the world. HH

This year’s Heiva i Kaua‘i takes place on August 3-4, Kapa‘a Beach Park, Kaua‘i.