The beauty of Polynesian dance

If you’ve never studied Polynesian dance, watching just one live performance might leave you wondering how you would feel up on stage, dancing the Hula or the Tahitian Ori. It’s not just the effortless motion of the dancers’ hips as they sway in perfect unison with their hands, shoulders and feet, or the mesmerizing beat of the music, or the beautiful costumes. It’s the way all those pieces fit together with an easy grace, making it hard to take your eyes off the dancers.

 

“To feel the spirit of Polynesian dance is beyond words,” says Kaina Quenga, a Hawaiian and Tahitian dance teacher in NYC. “It’s more than an art form. It’s a way of being!” Read on to learn more about Polynesian dance—and why its followers are so addicted.


Origins of the Movement
Polynesian dance encompasses Tahitian, Tongan, Samoan, Fijian, Maori (New Zealand) and Hawaiian styles. It began as an accompaniment to the oral storytelling traditions of those islands, conveying the literal meaning of a tale. Modern Polynesian dance still tells stories through movement, but those narratives can be a bit more abstract, allowing audiences to focus on the beauty of the dances themselves.


Watch and Learn
Today, Polynesian dance is performed all over the world: at concerts, colleges and universities, civic events, competitions, and festivals. Classes and seminars in various types of dances are also widely available. (Looking for classes in your area? Click here for resources.) As in many other dance forms, Polynesian dancers may perform as soloists but often dance with groups and companies. Many teachers do double duty as performers and directors of troupes or companies, so ask your teacher if and where he or she performs.


Get to Class
An introductory Polynesian dance lesson might include basic hip movements, traveling across the floor and a short routine. Instructors often weave in lessons about the dance’s costumes, music and symbolism. And if you’re looking to stay conditioned for ballet, hip hop or tap, you’ve come to the right place. The stretches and isolations tone and strengthen the abs and thighs, and the use of different rhythms in different parts of the body improves coordination. Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Teachers have often studied other types of dance and should be able to help beginners.


The Dances


Hawaiian

Today’s Hawaiian dance includes two basic styles: Hula Kahiko (ancient Hula) and Hula Auana (modern Hula). Hula Kahiko involves vigorous hand movements performed to the chants, or mele, of a singer playing a gourd drum. Hula Auana, set to contemporary music or accompanied by a ukelele, is more gentle and flowing.


Tahitian
Tahitian dance consists of fast, rhythmic hip movements, usually set to the beat of the toere, or slit-log drum. These hip isolations, known as oteas, are the highlight of many luau performances. Tahitian dance also has a distinctive basic step for men, pa’oti, which involves opening and closing slightly bent knees like scissors.


Samoan
Samoan culture has many visually exciting dances, or siva, such as the Siva Afi (“fireknife”), in which dancers twirl and toss a single- or double-bladed knife lit on fire. This dance originated as a way to train warriors, as did the Fa’ataupati, or Samoan slap dance, which teaches young men coordination by having them smack various parts of their bodies.


Maori
Maori dance, which originated in New Zealand, often involves sticks, songs and games. Particularly notable is the Poi dance, in which Maori women twirl Poi balls—small spheres attached to braided fibers—in an effort to keep their hands flexible for weaving. The whirring sound made by the props is also supposed to evoke the noise of the sea and of various animals.


Fijian

Fijian dance is characterized by the meke dances, which include the spear dance, the fan dance and the sitting dance. Simultaneously powerful and graceful, meke are usually accompanied by singing, drumming and hand clapping, and are danced during celebrations and special occasions.


Tongan
One of the most popular Tongan dances is the Tau’olunga, often performed by girls at weddings, which uses hand movements to interpret song lyrics. Other notable Tongan dances include the Lakalaka, which uses only arm movements; the Ma’ulu’ulu, a sitting dance; and the Kailao, a war dance  in which dancers use clubs to simulate combat.


One of the most beautiful aspects of Polynesian dance is its focus on personal expression. Makalina, a teacher with the Hawaiian Express and Lei Pasifika dance companies, advises aspiring Polynesian dancers to be patient and explore dances thoroughly, but not to worry too much about steps and counts or technique. Soon, she says, you’ll enjoy one of the art form’s greatest rewards: the feeling of ohana, or family. “Polynesian dance is feeling expressed in movement,” says Enjole, Polynesian dance teacher and director of the Hawaiian Tropical Paradise Dance Troupe. “It’s culture, history, artistry, pageantry, discipline and passion all in one.”

 

PHOTO: KTALASCO

Show Comments ()
Dance News
(From left) ABT's Erica Lall; NYCB's India Bradley; Washington Ballet's Nardia Boodoo; NYCB's Rachel Hutsell (all photos by Rachel Neville)

Misty Copeland. Her name is synonymous with exquisite artistry and outspoken advocacy. And her visibility has made a huge impact on the ballet world. Ballet's relationship with race has always been strained at best, hostile at worst. But Copeland's persistent message and star quality have finally forced the ballet industry to start talking about racial diversity, inclusivity, and representation. "The rarity of seeing ourselves represented is sad," Copeland says. "The more we see every hue and body shape represented on the stage, the more possibilities young dancers feel they have for themselves."

Keep reading... Show less
Look at that extension! (Rick Moffitt/Wikipedia Commons)

There are plenty of current Olympic figure skaters who'd make beautiful dancers (first among them Adam Rippon, whose gorgeously choreographed long program won the internet, if not the gold). But today, as we wait for the women's figure skating competition to crown its new champions, we wanted to throw it back to one of the most beautifully balletic skaters of all time: Sasha Cohen.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Via Jaime Guttenberg's memorialized Facebook page

Yesterday, the dance community was heartbroken to learn that Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran, both 14-year-old dancers, were among the 17 people killed on Valentine's Day in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Sarah Lane as Clara in The Nutcracker (photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy American Ballet Theatre)

American Ballet Theatre principal Sarah Lane charms audiences with her bright energy and crisp technique. The San Francisco, CA, native first started dancing at age 4 at a local community center, and at age 7 started training in Memphis, TN, at the Classical Ballet Memphis. Her family later moved to Rochester, NY, where she continued studying at the Draper Center for Dance Education. In 2002, she was a YoungArts Foundation winner in dance, allowing her to become a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts. She joined American Ballet Theatre as an apprentice in 2003, was made a soloist in 2007, and was promoted to principal last fall. Recently, she originated the role of Princess Praline in Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream. Catch her later this spring during ABT's Metropolitan Opera season. —Courtney Bowers

Keep reading... Show less
Thinkstock

Thinking about declaring a dance major? We had professors discuss all the factors you should consider before submitting that major-declaration form.

Keep reading... Show less

Leap! National Dance Competition offers dancers of all skill levels an opportunity to showcase their talents in an event where the focus is on fun and competing is just a bonus!

Keep reading... Show less
Giphy

The high-flying leaps of grand allegro are meant to be incredibly exciting. But at the end of an intense ballet class, when you're exhausted, it can be hard to give them the attention they deserve. Want to pump up your big jumps? Follow these 10 vital tips from Jennifer Hart, curriculum director and instructor at Ballet Austin.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Thinkstock

"Whole, low-fat, or skim?" The question of which milk to drink has gotten a little more complicated lately, with a wide variety of nondairy milks popping up in grocery stores. To find out which ones are worth your milk money, we had registered dietitian Monika Saigal answer some FAQs.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News

You and I both know that dancing is the best thing since chocolate chip cookies! But its always nice when dance gets the recognition it deserves from non–dance-world peeps. That's why we did our own happy dance when we saw Shape magazine's article on how dancing can actually make you a better athlete.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Ruby Castro with All-Star partner Paul Karmiryan on "So You Think You Can Dance" (Adam Rose/FOX)

When Ruby Castro became a Top 10 finalist on "So You Think You Can Dance" Season 13, she was a fresh, feisty new face to most at-home viewers. But in the dance world—particularly on the ballroom circuit—Ruby was already a household name. Miami-based Ruby grew up as a belle of the ballroom: Her parents, Manny and Lory Castro, are veritable superstars of the scene. They're the owners of Dance Town, an ultra-competitive studio in Doral, FL, and raised Ruby to follow in their furiously fast footsteps. Before she graced the "SYT" stage, Ruby had already been named a U.S. Junior Champion in Latin Ballroom, and competed on "America's Got Talent"—twice!

So, we know she's talented, we know she's versatile, we know she's stunning, and we know she can dance. But here's what you may not know about Ruby.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Want to Be on Our Cover?

covermodelsearch-image

Video

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Sponsored