Polynesian dance & music

Heiva : a democratized Tiurai

Before 1985, when it became the Heiva I Tahiti, this famous cultural event was called Tiurai, which is a deformation of the English word “July”.
Actually, the Tiurai was organized for the first time in July 1881 -one year after France had annexed Tahiti- by the colonial administration that was willing to celebrate Bastille Day in a somptuous way. If the Tiurai was quite militar for the colonists, the party that was given for locals was much more festive : games, entertainements, the first singing contest … but absolutly no dance, considered as obscene and abolished in 1820 by the British missionaries.

In 1985 -one year after French Polynesia obtained its internal autonomy- the South Pacific Art Festival was organized in Tahiti and the Tiurai became the Heiva I Tahiti. Moreover, the local government instituted a gathering day on July 29th – called Hiva Vae Vae– which marks the beginning of the Heiva festivities.


Himene at the Heiva


The first himene (singings) created at early 20th century are a sort of mixture of Polynesian traditional polyphonic singings and religious hymns brought by the first British missionaries. The himene tarava, the himene ru’au and the ‘ute are mainhimene types.

If they have a religious aspect when sang in protestant temples, the himene taravaand the himene ru’au take a secular form for the Heiva and help to perpetuate the ma’ohi legends from which the songs’ subjects are issued.

  • The himene ru’au is sang acapella (without music) on a slow tempo by a group composed by a mixed chorus and soloists sitting in semicircle, facing the chorus chief.
  • HimeneThe himene tarava generally gathers from 60 to 80 singers from the same district or the same protestant parish. Composed by 6 to 10 different parts,himene tarava is by definition of great complexity : men producing bass and rhythmic tones, men and women mixing their voices to sing the text or singing in offbeat, women singing only the first sentence to launch the melody, soloists making vocalizations and modulations, etc… and finally, an orchestra chief that knows all the parties. When he feels that the parties reach a perfect harmony, he turns back to face the public and adds his voice to the structure.
  • The ‘ute is a singing that often uses a satirical tone, to the great happiness of the spectators. It is interpreted on a high tempo by two or three people with traditional or more modern instruments (guitar, ukulele, harmonica and accordion).

The oral culture

The pre-European Polynesian culture is by definition an oral culture that couldn’t have been transmitted from one generation to the other without the true messengers that were the ‘orero. Actually, these men had to know perfectly all culture fields and moreover they had to know how to transmit their knowledge. True learned men, they also had to be orators, storytellers and even actors and singers. Moreover, they had to have a strong and untiring voice, as well as an infallible memory.

Only a long education could give a good ‘orero : first of all, the student was tattooed -sometimes on his whole body- what constituted a true “formatting rite”, then he was “filled with knowledge” like an empty object. Thus, when his formation was over, the ‘orero had to perfectly mastel the three main points of his future function : themana, a vital power for knowledge ; the pa’ari, knowledge itself and the tapu, a sort of professional ethic of the‘orero.

Dance history

Polynesian dansersAbolished in 1820 by the British puritan missionaries, the Polynesian dance made a timid come back at early 20th century but kept closed in restraint during the 50 following years. The costumes only allowed to see the face, the feet and the hands ; the gestures and attitudes were fixed… A renewal only appeared in the second half of the 20th century, but unfortunately, cultural losses were huge.

Opening and codification were the two words that best summarized the evolution of the Polynesian dance since the 1950′. Step by step, the pressure exercised by strong personalities like Madeleine MOUA allowed to raise interdictions and to attend a renewal of this art, deprived of any expression for long. A wave of steps and gestures seeking and codification as executed before the Europeans arrival started, but it was not easy.

Since 1998, Heiva contests allow to conciliate these two elements promoting both creativity and respect of tradition. Tradition is paid tribute thanks to the Madeleine Moua Tradition Prize or to the Claire Leverd Prizewhich rewards the group that best defended the original traditions. But creation is also rewarded through theGilles Hollande free creation Great PrizeGilles Hollande was actually a great dancer and choreographer of the 1990′ that revolutionized Polynesian dance and made it famous all around the world.

Dance styles

Four type of dances are presented during the Heiva contest : the ote’a, the aparima, the hivinau and thepa’o’a.

  • Heiva i TahitiThe ote’a is the more codified of the Tahitian traditional dances. Originally it was reserved to men only but today it is also danced by women and is characterized by wide and abrupt moves and a quick and jerky rhythm. Moreover, the huge number of dancers and their geometric disposition on the scene allow group movements that are really impressive for spectators, but does not leave much room for creation.
  • The aparima is the dance of gestures par excellence : hands describe a story thanks to a large scale of symbolic gestures (the sea, birds flight, voice…). Accompanied or not by singing dancers, the aparima can be danced with a vegetal costume in a daily life descriptive scene, or with beautiful cloth dresses that let you guess the vahine‘s curves.
  • The hivinau is the easiest and technically the less demanding of the Tahitian dances although not the less visually impressive. Actually, dancers stand on two concentric circles -commonly a circle of women and the other of men- and turn round in two opposite directions. These crossings allow to illustrate great daily life and sea life scenes. Thus,hivanau can be mixed with the pa’o’a.
  • The pa’o’a is a dance traditionally linked to tapa fabrication : sat on the ground, women used to beat bark in time and to accompany themselves with singings in order to break the monotony or to give themselves courage. One of them sometimes got up and started to make simply a few steps or to dance a complete solo. Nowadays, the pa’o’a -only accompanied by the rhythmic of the percussions- is interpreted by agroup of dancers sitting on the ground and slapping their thighs with energy and by a solo dancer or a couple of dancers


danse costumesThe costumes are a significant part of the show that is given since they are a truetrademark for some groups and also receive a mark during the Heiva. They also permit to carry on a strong cultural tradition, guarantor of the handicraft and of the local identity survival.

Moreover, there are three different types of costumes, one for the group chief – which has to be slightly different from the dancers’ not to confuse them, one for the dancers and one for the musicians.

danse costumesThe costume is also different from one dance to another : dancers will wear a pareu or a cloth dress for the aparima, and a costume made of vegetals for the ote’a.
Click the small picture for more details.

Finally, there are a lot of rules managing the Heiva contest which define true conventions : exclusive use of vegetal matters, hand-crafted costumes, use of the blue color only on cloth, jewelry forbidden…

Traditional music

For the local traditional orchestras, Heiva best orchestra contest has always been the end of one hard work year so as a true rostrum where one can demonstrate his talent : musicians qualities, rapidity of execution, melodies originality or on the contrary tribute to old melodies, clothes… everything is juged.

Since 1998, the contest is divided into two parts : a compulsory program, and a free program. The compulsory program could be summarize like that : five musicians, five different instruments and five pieces that must be played with the most clearness and rigor as possible. As for the free program, it privilegiates original creation but also emphasizes on pieces difficulty, instruments and tones diversity.

to'ereThough imported from the Cook islands, the to’ere -that exists in three different sizes- has become the polynesian percussion par excellence, perfectly integrating itself to pre-existing orchestras. Its fabrication in rosewood ortamanu demands a great agility and a fine ear from the sculptor in order to obtain the more just and large sounds scale. Actually, the instrumentist will obtain the desired sounds only while changing the hitting point.

The tari parau is a sort of polynesian bass drum for it is hit with a felt drumstick and produces bass and dull tones. It can also be hit with hands to give little offbeats or to atenuate vibrations.

The ‘ihara is a bamboo split in thin strips hit with two drumsticks.

pahuThe pahu is the polynesian instrument that the more looks like the world others percussions, as the African djembe for instance. It can be noticed that as in the rest of the world, this drum has had numerous uses : to encourage warriors during a fight, to accompany the marae ceremonies, to give rythm to Heiva evenings…

The vivo is a three-holes-bamboo flute in which the instrumentist blows with its nose. Though it can only play few notes, the vivo produces wonderful sounds thanks to the harmonization efforts of the musicians while playing in groups.

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