18th Century (1767 Wallis) – 19th Century
Arrival Of The Western Navigators. Discovering The People, Culture And Dance : The Arioi
The origins of Ori Tahiti remain a mystery. The first traces of tahitian dance bring us back to the arrival of the western navigators in Polynesia. They discovered a culture with a singular passion for singing and dancing. A civilisation divided in three distinctive castes : ari’i, ra’atira and manahune. All of these three castes could be part of an artistic religious order : The Arioi, venerating Oro, the main deity and god of war. The Arioi were artists, they would perform acting and singing but their favorite art and the main subject of their performances was dance. The body of the dancers was blackened with coal and dyed with Mati or coated with somptuous costumes, making these exhibitions even more spectacular. Accompagnied by songs, music of flutes, drums, batteries, the dances lasted most of the night.
19th Century – 20th Century
In the early nineteenth century, Christianity got increasingly successful in Polynesia. The missionaries eventually prohibit dancing and most of their habits actually, seeking to place the islands among the ‘’civilized nations’’.
The Pomare code fell in 1819 in Tahiti.
Then little by little in all the other islands the following years, awkwardly mixing religion and civil law.
The missionaries imposed to the Tahitian what they called ‘’codes’’ and viciously cut them of their culture and their pass. According to the Article 23 of the Leeward islands Code in 1820 ‘’all songs, games or vulgar entertainments are strictly forbidden’’ written in the code between ‘’the ban of the tattoo and dancing’’ and ‘’wearing lei flowers at church’’. All those actions were considered ‘’former and bad habits’’ because they were indecent and they had to disappear.
On one hand, luckily not everyone thought the same way. Multiple visitors agreed with the people on the fact that their culture shouldn’t be taken away, because it was their personality and their dance was amazing. On the other hand, some foreigners were astonished in front of unpleasant behaviors. However, the missionaries were persuaded that their changes were fully accepted. Some Tahitian would dance anyways, hiding from the policemen, like the young Queen Pomare. After a while, a couple of people protested against the law to have the right to dance again, unfortunately they were exiled, like all those who would try.
Subsequent to all the punishment, Pomare finally started thinking like the missionaries and totally opposed with dancing and all actions related to it in 1842. From then on, many changes were done, allowing the people to dance at certain moments.
For nearly a century, Polynesian people will be deprived of Ori Tahiti. It was not until the late nineteenth century that the traditional dance will be accepted increasingly in public, tolerated each 14th of July.
Madeleine Moua: The Resurection
In 1956, a teacher that was passionate by the dance created a group named Heiva with the patronage of Terii and Takau, the two princesses. For the first time after decades, we could finally see girls from an honorable family dance in public, which bothered some people a little bit in the beginning.
Nonetheless, Madelaine gave the dance a new life with dignity and greatness. Everyone started seeing it in a different way. All the details were thought meticulously so that everything would be perfect and wouldn’t provoke: the gestures, the costumes, the songs, the sound, and the image. Happily, it was successful!!
Then, ten years later, a lot of dance groups were born, created by Madelaine’s former students and that still exist until today.
Furthermore, the dance gained more and more importance. Some troops went overseas to perform in front of the public of different countries to promote tourism, others performed in hotels of Tahiti, out of the festival season to entertain the tourist or the locals, and at every big event you were sure to assist a dance show. Thanks to Madelaine Moua, every year, you have the chance to participate at one the biggest dance contest the, Heiva I Tahiti.
The rebirth of the Tahitian dance also brought the development of tourism in our islands. People were fascinated by it and if they couldn’t come to Tahiti, they would do researches to find a way to assist and learn more about our dance and culture.
20th Century – 21st Century
The Contemporary Era Of Ori Tahiti
It was during the festivities of the 14th of July that the dance finally found a memorable place in the Tahitian official life. At the beginning of the century celebrations of “July” were organized by the Municipality. They were usually held on the Tarahoi area, which was Pomare’s ceremonial place in front of the government.
Depending on the circumstances, the different districts of the islands were able to participate. The organizers required at least 16 dancers per group and the winner would get a prize.
The costumes weren’t a big deal at the time. They wore a ‘’more’’ (a Tahitian handcraft skirt used to dance), a waist fringe made of ‘’burao’’ fibers, handcrafted bra and a simple lei flower. Which are the base of the costumes that we still use today yet with more details and importance.
In Papeete, at the ‘’Queens’’ or ‘’Lafayette’’ you could find girls dancing with an orchestra. They had a lot of courage to dance in public all the time, despite the critical looks of others who still didn’t accept the resurrection of the dance.
Ori Tahiti today : International recognition and creation of the Hura Tapairu contest.
Since the 70s, the Ori Tahiti hasn’t stopped growing in popularity. Each year the Heiva has become more and more spectacular, inviting more dancers to participate, increasing the people’s attention.
In the meantime, some famous Ori Tahiti groups started touring the world with their show, exporting the discipline into different countries. While official numbers of Ori Tahiti dancers remain unknown, more than 600 000 international practitioners are estimated today. Thanks to its expanding success, many dance schools have opened in different countries such as: Japan, Mexico, the U.S and France.
Though the Heiva I Tahiti remains the biggest dance contest of the year for the moment, a new contest was in created in 2004, the Hura Tapairu. Ten years ago, no one would have thought that the Hura Tapairu would take so much importance. It is almost similar to the Heiva. The difference is that the dance groups have more freedom. The Heiva has certain rules to respect: a theme, the number of dancers and musicians, the costumes, etc. Most of the small group, cannot participate because of a lack of money or dancers.
The Hura Tapairu gives the chance to everyone to show what they are worth, and some small-unknown groups proved themselves and cam out of the blue. Groups from overseas even have their chances here. You are free to choose your type of dance, your performance, famous groups or unknown groups; everyone is on the same footstep.
Photos and pictures : 1. A Young Woman of Otaheite Dancing engraving after J. Webber 2. Tahitian dances in Papeete, 14th of July. Archives Territoriales 5. Moena by Stephane Mailion