WWearing intricate costumes made of plants and adorned with tropical flowers, the women look spectacular. While their torsos remain completely still, somehow impossible, their hips are circling so fast it’s almost a blur.
These women perform the traditional Tahitian dance, or Ori Tahiti, during Tahiti’s annual cultural festival, the Heiva. And they are not alone. Thousands of women around the world, from Mexico to Japan, do it too.
According to a report released by the French Ministry of Culture in 2017, there were over 12,000 Ori Tahiti dancers in the United States and over 10,000 in Latin America. In Japan, the movement has attracted 25,000 dancers and is expected to reach 500,000 by 2027.
Ori Tahiti is a broad term that encompasses the many traditional dances originating from the island of Tahiti, performed by both men and women. The best known is the ote’a, a very fast dance that shakes the hips, performed by women. Another is the aparima, which exhibits slower and more graceful body movements. Both dances are difficult to master, but absolutely captivating to watch.
“The dance itself, in my eyes, is the most beautiful, the most powerful, the most sensual and the most expressive,” says Tumata Robinson, renowned Tahitian choreographer, costume designer and founder of the famous 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 pretty [when I dance]Says Moena Maiotui, one of Tahiti’s most beloved professional dancers, who has traveled the world to perform, teach Ori workshops and share Tahitian culture. YouTube videos of her dancing, solo and with the Tahiti Ora dance group, have racked up millions of views.
“It’s always good to be on stage and share the culture and what we love and the passion and also tell the story… with our hands and share that moment with the people watching.”
Self-expression and connection to nature is what Ori Tahiti is for Rina Hanzawa. Born and raised in Tokyo, Hanzawa discovered Ori Tahiti in her early twenties.
“I went to dance school and found Ori Tahiti there,” says Hanzawa. “At the time, I had no idea of Tahitian culture. But I fell in love with Ori Tahiti when I tried it. The Ori movement was so natural to me – it was just very comfortable to do so I felt a strong connection with it.
What started as a casual hobby quickly grew into an enduring passion, which led her to compete at the national level.
Hanzawa now lives in Australia, where she has established her own Tahitian dance school, Tai Pererau, on the beaches of northern Sydney.
“My fire of love towards Tahitian culture will never be extinguished,” she said.
The dance that started this fire, however, was almost extinct. The arrival of Europeans in French Polynesia, along with their religion and their laws, saw Ori Tahiti banished or suppressed for nearly 100 years.
At the end of the 18th century, the dance was banned by European missionaries, who called it immoral. Then, in 1819, the Pomare Code, a set of laws enacted by the Tahitian monarchy, outright banned traditional dances. In 1842, the French protectorate authorized dancing – but with so many conditions that the practice was still repressed.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the church began to lose its influence and traditional dances really started to revive. During this time, the first modern dance group made its appearance, led by Madeleine Mou’a.
Damaris Cairo, author of a book titled Ori Tahiti: Between Tradition, Culture and Modernity, says: “Little by little, by doing dance shows in hotels for tourists, Ori Tahiti became popular – even if the local population initially had a hard time accepting it. “
In the 1970s, Tahitian cultural revival was in full swing and from the 1980s, Ori Tahiti was rediscovered, reinvented and fully adopted by the local population.
Despite a turbulent 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 due to colonization. Today, it has become one of Tahiti’s best exports.
Hinatea Colombani, expert on Tahitian culture and director of the Arioi Cultural and Arts Center, says it’s particularly satisfying to see Ori Tahiti become popular in the very countries that tried to eradicate the practice two centuries ago.
“For me it’s revenge, because they celebrate our culture,” she says.
“Ori Tahiti is a freedom for me. Freedom of movement, freedom for the soul… and a very important way to escape from everyday life and connect with my ancestors and tradition.
This year, the 2021 international Heiva Ori Tahiti Nui – 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 entrants: New Caledonia and Switzerland.
Ginie Naea, from France, is a dance teacher at the Te Ori Tahiti school in Geneva. The school has over 70 dancers, ranging in age from eight to 68 years old. After competing for the first time online in the international competition, they won fourth place in a group category and first place for solo. ote’a – which was danced by Naea.
“It was a really great experience,” Naea said 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 it required – a connection that is created during performance. There is a real bond between the Ori Tahiti dancers, a real family that is created around the same passion.
“Ori Tahiti is more than a discipline, it is an art of living. It’s something that really completes me… an art in which I thrive – as a woman, as a friend, as a mother – it’s really part of my daily life.