Since time immemorial Ori Tahiti, the traditional Tahitian dance, has played a major role in Polynesian life. Dancing helped maintain the social fabric & gave a sense of cohesion to the lives of Polynesians. Dancing had a sacred role but also provided the opportunity for sharing in a spirit of joy. Framed within a context of Polynesian life & legend dance offered a means of communication often with a deep & spiritual significance, in an otherwise essentially oral culture.
This rich culture was all but wiped out by missionaries in the early 19th century who, shocked by the explicitly sexual connotations of the dance which they saw as ‘satanic & obscene’, had the dance banned via regal decree – Pomare II in 1819 & Queen Pomare in 1842 – as ‘debauchery’ and an expression of paganism.
In 1881 when France annexed a large part of what is now French Polynesia, & no doubt wishing to win favour with locals over their traditional rival, the English missionaries, the French gave permission for a display of traditional sport & dancing on Bastille Day of that year. Bastille day falls in July each year & the “Tiurai” (July) as this event became known would become symbolic for Polynesians as a celebration of their culture & their heritage. The dancing was allowed but only with clothing modified by the missionaries covering the whole of the dancers bodies – both male & female.
The power of the churches & of the authorities, however,would see the Tiurai continue in a constrained state – it would not be until the period 1920-1930 that tapa (bark cloth) would reappear before in turn the more (vegetal fibre dresses). It was only as recently as 1956 when Madeleine Moua, astutely using dancers from families of ‘good background’, started her troupe “Heiva” & revolutionised the image of Polynesian dancing.
Banned by the missionaries as being obscene, Ori Tahiti has become the showcase of Tahiti.
On 5th September, 2015, 1539 dancer gathered in Mexico City to set the current Guinness World Record for the largest number of Ori Tahiti dancers.
On 30th January, 2016, Tahitians, including a large contingent from Bora Bora, flocked to Atimaono, the country’s excellent golf course on Tahiti’s western shores…………..& in so doing, creating never before seen traffic jams. A fantastic day, beautiful floral head leis of every colour, a massive percussion section, dancers dressed in a regal red ………………… a day which brought together Tahitians young & old in a spirit of celebration.
Everyone was in the spirit of things:
There on the lush fairways of this beautiful golf-course, 2980 dancers gathered to dance the Ori Tahiti in unison for over 7 minutes & in the process setting a new Guinness World Record.
I will add a video here for those who missed this exceptional event to see.
Moves are afoot in Tahiti to have the Ori Tahiti inscribed in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage.