“You don’t learn Samoan dance, you grow up in it.”
In Pasifika culture music is not just something you listen to on the treadmill or in your car and dance isn’t just for a club. Music and dance are fundamental aspects of the Pacific Identity.
In March I went to two festivals celebrating Pacific culture: Pasifika was a Polynesian cultural festival and Polyfest was a Pacific music and dance competion-festival. At both events, islands like Fiji, Samoa, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Cook Islands, Niue, and Tonga had organized booths where they shared their culture and lots of food. At Polyfest, each island had a stage where different high schools, grammar school, and university groups performed dance native to that country. I only had a brief opportunity to go but during my time there I saw 3 Maori (NZ) dances, 2 Samoan, and 1 Tongan all one right after the other. Having the dances come one after the other allowed me to clearly compare and contrast my experiences of seeing them.
During the Maori performances colors like brown, tan, and black were prominent where Tonga and Samoa made use of more vibrant colors. Red is a generally understood to be a color to signify royalty throughout the Pacific and was used in most of the dances. Within the context of the dances I actually saw, I noticed more range with contemporary in Samoan and Tongan dance.
Something that was absolutely awesome to see was the response of the audience viewing the Maori hakas. At the end of each performance, some members of the audience would stand up and perform a chant back to the performers. I was incredible to witness that display of appreciation from audience to performer. Similarly, in Tongan and Samoan performances, people would often get up and jump around as a sign of respect to the performers during their dances. The moment of elation and the need to get up and move is called mafana. Both audience and performer can feel mafana – as though it’s created in the space and circulates through the air.