The Celebration of Life
In Tahitian, hei means “to assemble” and va means “community,” so the word heiva refers to any organized activity or gathering in French Polynesia. However, the proper Heiva I Tahiti has become known as “The Celebration of Life” because it is the symbol of Polynesian culture. It serves as an iconic event for a group of people that are especially proud of their unique heritage.
The History of Heiva
Music and dance have always been a central part of Polynesian culture. Tahitian dance, or “Ori Tahiti,” is one of the most sophisticated and ritualized art forms of all time. However, it was not always practiced as freely in Tahiti as it is today. When European Protestant missionaries arrived in the 19th century, they found such “erotic” displays to be offensive and King Pomare II legally banned the tradition in 1819. Thankfully, the Tahitian people found a way to keep dance alive, practicing the ritual in secret and passing on the tradition in anticipation for its revival.
After Tahiti was annexed by France in 1881, the Heiva festival began to take shape. At that time, the event was called Tiurai – a derivation of the word July. It was meant to coincide with France’s national holiday known as Bastille Day, which is still celebrated every year on July 14th. On this one day, France allowed Polynesians to partake in their traditional celebrations. The first festival included games, entertainment and singing, but dance was still somewhat restricted, forcing them to perform a much more “sanitized” version of Tahitian dance.
It wasn’t until 1956 that Madeleine Moua, a high school principal from Papeete, spearheaded the full revival of Tahitian dance by forming the dance troupe Heiva Tahiti. Soon after, traditional dance resumed its rightful place as a vibrant part of Tahitian culture. Then in 1985, Tahiti obtained greater political autonomy from France and they renamed the festival Heiva I Tahiti.
The Heiva Experience
Each dance performance is a unique creation. The music and choreography reflect a historical and legendary theme, highlighting the drama of the opera and the distinct influence of Tahiti’s ancestral traditions. The dancers rigorously train for six or more months, and their costumes are handcrafted from materials indigenous to the area. The live orchestras are made up of five to fifty musicians using traditional instruments such as the nasal flute or “vivo,” marine shells or “pu,” and the ukulele.
Beyond the dancing, the Heiva I Tahiti is also a traditional sports competition. The sporting events are based on ancient athletic activities and include heavy stone lifting, javelin throwing, outrigger canoe races, and a fruit carrying competition in which men sprint carrying large bunches of bananas tied to poles.