- Stunning, a knock-out, jaw-dropping, gob-smacking, unreal, (even amaaaaaaazing!)
- Unique & authentique celebration of Polynesian history & culture;
- Culturally enriching experience;
- Wonderful associated casual dining experience.
I recall vividly being mesmorised by the first Heiva I ever watched. I have attended every night of every Heiva that I could ever since! That’s how good it is. The Heiva is Tahiti’s most emphatic statement of their deep history & rich culture. It’s a non-stop, month long celebration of joy through dance, song & other cultural events giving an understanding of Polynesian culture, history & life. It’s also one of the greatest shows on earth. It’s that sensational!
For centuries, singing & dancing have played a major role in Polynesian life; Polynesians have an innate passion for festivities, for singing & dancing, for sharing in a spirit of joy. Theirs is a rich culture almost wiped out by missionaries in the early 19th century who banned such ‘debauchery’ as expressions of paganism. In 1881 when France annexed a large part of what in now French Polynesia, & no doubt wishing to win favour with locals over their traditional rival through the English missionaries, permission was given for a display of traditional sport & dancing on Bastille Day which falls annually in July. This “Tiurai” (July) would become symbolic for Polynesians as a celebration of their culture & their heritage.
The power of the churches & of the authorities, however, would see the Tiurai continue in a constrained state until 1956 when Madeleine Moua, astutely using dancers from families of ‘good background’, started her troupe “Heiva” & revolutionised the image of Polynesian dancing. This year, 2013, marks the 132nd year of the Tiurai now known as the Heiva.
Bora Bora’s Heiva is world famous. Held in an open air theatre of powdery white sand the event is both magical & mystical set as it is at the foot of Mt Pahia. Before the massive marquis covering the dance area is removed, school children come to dance, come to prepare themselves for the time they too will participate in the Heiva:
The stage is enveloped by a number of restaurants & bars constructed just for the event in totally local materials essentially wood from the purau tree & niau (weaved coconut leaves) for roofing & the mayor & dignatories head off to inspect & officially open the various establishments. Authentic, brilliantly decorated, vibrant & serving good food at reasonable prices in a great ambience the restaurants add greatly to the heiva experience:
Night falls & the first day of competition starts. “How good is this” exclaim clients of the larger hotels as they are dropped by shuttle boat at the very door-step to the event where its free to watch from the sides or one can pay a very reasonable 500 to 1500xpf for elevated seats offering exceptional views of the spectacle.
A close-up of one of the youngest participants dancing:
The spectacular dancing is why the crowds are there. Dances, music, choreography & costumes are created uniquely for the heiva concerned. Themes are based on Polynesian history & legends. Dancers train for months for the festival where they dance in groups, couples or individually accompanied by large orchestras using traditional instruments including the pahu and the toere drums and the vivo, a nose flute. There is an actual competition for the orchestras whose percussion based sounds captivate all who listen. Tremendously powerful stuff.
If you have ever witnessed the Tahitian tamure you will understand how intoxicating it is. Fast, vibrant, colourful this is surely the world’s most sensual dance form. Check out the following video; just check it out!
Photos of a couple of the orchestras:
The singing is another integral component of the Heiva. Large distrct based choirs under the direction of a ra’atira (conductor) deliver songs from a number of categories including himene tarava (traditional songs), himene ru’au (very ancient songs), & himene nota (more modern religious songs). Finally there’s the entertaining ute, a rhythmical song interpreted by up to 3 singers accompanied by a small number of string instruments (guitar & ukulele) with lyrics completely improvised & based on a play on words.
The Umu Ti (walking on fire) is another authentic ritual which attracts hundreds of absolutely mesmorised spectators. Animated by the tahua (priest) participants are invited, following deeply spiritual incantations, to remove their shoes & follow the tahua barefooted across the fire stepping along its hot stones where the surface temperature can exceed 2000 ° Celsius. This event is truly a total knock-out, an absolute ‘must do’!
Whilst the singing & dancing take place at night the days are filled with a myriad of events to keep the party rolling along. A traditional sports competition based on ancient athletic disciplines – Tu’aro Maohi – highlighting the strength, endurance and skill of Polynesians is conducted in both mens & womens divisions. Competitions are held in va’a (outrigger canoe), coconut tree climbing, stone lifting, javelin throwing, husking coconuts & making copra, fruit carrying races & the sailing of traditional canoes.
The va’a, Tahiti’s leading traditional sport in which the Tahitians are world champions, attracts thousands of spectators to watch the hundreds of finely tuned paddlers battle for supremacy both in the lagoon & in the open sea in pirogues ranging from single paddler outriggers to the massive double pirogues carrying sixteen paddlers & which are rarely seen outside of the Heiva. During the Heiva the paddlers are clad only in a pareo & a colourful lai – it’s powerful, it’s colourful, it’s spectacular!
The javelin competition involves throwing a 2-4m javelin made from parau (local wood) in an attempt to spear a coconut placed 7.5m high atop a pole some 20m away. Agility in a very relaxed ambience.
The fruit carrying races are a colourful show of speed & endurance where competitors dressed in pareos & lais run barefooted shouldering various fruit, particularly bananas, attached to a bamboo rod over a course traditionally measuring 1705m. In both the beginners & the masters categories the load is 30kg whilst the Aito (iron-man) carry 50kg. Woman’s categories all carry 15kg.
Amoraa ofai -the stone lifting competition – is a very ancient tradition practiced for centuries particularly in the Australes. The stones are oval in shape & weigh between 80 & 150 kgs. They are greased with monoi to increase the degree of difficulty in lifting. The goal is to lift the rock over one’s shoulder in a minimum of time; technique is everything.
There are also a number of other sporting events not quite so traditional but run in the overall spirit of the festival. A men’s & a women’s road race take place. Most competitors run barefooted! Look closely at the following photo which shows the girl leading the women’s race running barefooted whilst the soles of her feet are cooled by water poured from a bottle carried by her assistant in bicycle:
The fish have to be gutted before being weighed in ……… people have been known to force large lead sinkers down their throats in an endeavour to assure victory!
The Heiva reserves a special place for Polynesian arts & craftsmen. There are competitions for the weaving baskets & other wares from niau, for tifaifai (a colourful traditional Tahitian bed cover), for engreaved mother of pearl & jewellery, for traditional hats & so on as well as for copra based products.
It was Bora Bora turn this year to host the Heiva i Raromatai, an amicable competition between the winners of the best dance group from each of the islands making up the Leeward Islands. The streets were in a most receptive mode & the party was set to rock-on for yet another week:
The fire-dance warmed up participants & spectators alike:
- Take your camera ready to blast away;
- Great viewing for free from the sides of the competition;
- If you seek seating grab the (cheaper!) places towards the back of the stand where the seats have a greater elevation from the row in front.