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Two Island Cultures Meet: Tahitian Dance Classes in New York

By Elissa Gilbert

The sounds of New York drift up from the street through the open window. At 7pm, that means rush hour noises, the sounds of cars and trucks rushing by, the sounds of horns honking when their movement stalls.

Inside the dance studio, the sounds and movements come from a different island. We are wearing pareos tied dangerously low around our hips, not our waists, and the music is the beating of Tahitian drums. At the front of the class, instructor Tehani Benjamin calls out instructions: one, two, varu …. Her hands clap out the rhythm. Right, right, down, down. Hips swivel, arms gracefully rise.

I can’t keep up. My hips don’t move that fast, not with the fluidity of the other dancers in the class. Tehani’s aunt is one of the most famous dance group leaders in Tahiti, and she grew up with these movements. One of the students is her partner in Ori Manea Tahitian Dance School, Kim Davidson, who learned Tahitian dance growing up in Hawaii. Both have performed with professional Tahitian dance troupes.

The other students, many from Hawaii and the Philippines, came to class knowing either Tahitian or hula dance. Near the end of the class series, they’re working on the movements for their group show, when they’ll perform in traditional costumes.

“When I was growing up we made all of our own costumes. It was part of the experience,” Kim says, but for their show here they’ll wear costumes Tehani borrowed from her aunt’s dance group.

They show me pictures of them. The long skirts called mores are made of dried grass, in bright colors, yellows and reds. The headdresses and tops have shells sewn onto them.

Besides this intermediate class, the school offers workshops to teach the basics, and they’re starting classes for beginners, hoping to enlarge New York’s small community of Tahitian dancers. Tahitian dance has its standard movements, like the standard ballet positions, but these are for the hips, not the feet: the side-to-side, the round, the eights.

The hips move, whatever else is going on: whether the dancer is on tiptoes or squatting. Hawaiian hula and belly dancing have some of the same moves, but Tahitian dance isn’t as formal as Hawaiian and doesn’t have the upper body movement of belly dancing. It is all from the hips, always. “It’s all hip-based and then arms,” Tehani says, “we add gesture to it.”

The students in class are all female; there are male performers in Tahitian dance but the steps are different and teaching it would require a male instructor. There aren’t any in New York: “If there was one, we’d probably have heard about it.”  A few male friends have taken classes and learned the women’s parts, though.

The music in the class changes to a gentler melody with song. The first dance was the style called otea, driven by the drums; this one is aparima, with guitars and song, and it tells a story. Tehani does choreography for the class, but this number was one her aunt’s group danced during the Heiva festival in Tahiti.

Tahitian dance was suppressed after missionaries reached the islands, but it’s undergone a revolution, Tehani says. “It was by our day standards pretty boring. This is from my father, my father is French. He went there when he was 20 and he tells me, thank goodness it has changed.” Those fast hip movements I can’t do, the fa’arapu, they never used to do it that fast, she says.

Today Tahitian dance is spreading in popularity. “There’s a big Tahitian dance movement in Japan,” Tehani says. “I was told the other day, there’s as many people in Japan who dance Tahitian as who live in Tahiti.”

Tahitian dance is also popular in Hawaii and California, but it hasn’t made much impact in New York yet. “There’s nothing else like this in the city. There’s one other Tahitian dance group, but that’s it. There’s a bunch of hula, but this just isn’t out there,” Kim says. Talking about the classes she and Tehani run, she laughs, “This is really all a con by me to have Tahitian dance classes in the city that I can go to.”

The class I attend is no con; the dancers are working up serious sweat and take frequent breaks to find their water bottles. The friendly spirit of the Polynesian islands continues after the music stops, as they linger to plan a holiday gathering. Schedules are complicated, and they joke about having multiple parties until everyone can make one. It’s clear the class isn’t just about dancing; it’s about friendship. Ori Manea has brought the warmth of Tahiti to New York along with its dance styles.

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