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About This Festival

While it may not be as much a part of the collective consciousness as other international festivals, Heiva I Tahiti holds its own in terms of cultural significance; attendance; and hip shaking, drum beating, dance-till-you-drop fun. During Heiva, groups from the various archipelagos of French Polynesia (and beyond) congregate in Tahiti for a month of festivities and competitions.

Heiva comes from the words hei, meaning to assemble, and va, meaning community places. So really, Heiva pertains to anything from activities and pastimes to physical exercise, dance, and movement. At its core, though, Heiva means festival. Music, singing, dancing and sporting events--performances in general--have always been integral to Polynesian culture. In ancient times, these performances were essential components of religious and political ceremonies, and dance was one of the most sophisticated and ritualized art forms.

The Forbidden Dance

Every party has a pooper though, and in the 19th Century, Christian missionaries deemed these demonstrations an erotic form of debauchery, and in 1819 the practice of these performances became illegal. Dancing became a clandestine activity, something secretive and hidden away from public view.

Finally in 1881, France won an ongoing struggle with England and was finally able to annex a large part of what is today French Polynesia. Under French rule, the Polynesians adopted Bastille Day, France's national holiday celebrated on July 14. Feeling generous, France decided to allow the Polynesians to participate in sports and dancing, only on this day, in an effort to get out from under the Anglo-Saxon's thumb and to satisfy Polynesians' insatiable appetite for such festivities.

Freedom Fries and Hip-Shakes

In 1977, French Polynesia gained greater political autonomy from France. This emancipation led authorities to organize the Heiva I Tahiti in June 1985. Heiva I Tahiti is more than just a festival; it's symbolic of the pride and heritage of Polynesian culture.

Now, set amidst the impossibly turquoise waters and otherworldly, black sand beaches of the French Polynesian archipelago, traditional dance is making its big comeback. Those mesmerizing gyrations aren't just answering the primal call of the drums, they're telling an ancestral story as full of drama and intrigue as opera. The dances are unique creations, based on history and legend, for which the dancers train intensively for six months or more.

You'll find no electronic dance music here either--live music and singing accompany the dancers. The orchestras are made up of as many as fifty musicians using traditional instruments such as the vivo (a bamboo nasal flute), pu (marine shells), and more recently, the Hawaiian ukulele.

The main draw of Heiva is the professional dancers. From the slow, serpentine hand-dance of aparima to the rapid, hip swiveling of ote'a, you'll find yourself mesmerized by these performers. The fact that they're scantily clad in elaborate costumes that rival those of a Vegas showgirl (or showguy!) doesn't hurt either. Make no mistake though: this is not a meaningless display of flesh. The dancers are telling a story with their bodies, and their costumes (or lack thereof) aid in telling that story.

The amateur dance performances are also a popular attraction. You'll get everything from little boys and girls to older women and men, all passionately wiggling their hips in the name of traditional dance. What makes these performances so exciting is that it's likely that you're viewing the future stars of Heiva to come.

The traditional singing competition, or himene, accounts for another powerful portion of Heiva. The melodies include a cappella pieces sung in reo ma'ohi (Polynesian language), and some of the most authentic performances come from the singers from the island of Rapa Iti (not to be confused with Rapa Nui). To the untrained ear, this type of singing may sound out of key, but once you become familiar with the tonalities and follow the harmonies, it's hard not to be moved. Even if you don't speak the language, you'll pick up on the story, which expresses a wide range of emotions.

Heiva I Tahiti has always been a showcase for sports competitions and games. The traditional sporting events are based on ancient athletic activities and include competitions like stone lifting, javelin tossing, outrigger canoe races, fruit carrying races and palm tree climbing. If the seductive dancing didn't impress you, watching someone shimmy up a palm tree at lightning speed will!

This is a festival for the whole family: it's rich in culture, deeply rooted in tradition, and it all takes place in the stunning tropical setting of Tahiti.

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