Cultural awareness through dance among Pacific Islanders in Salt Lake City

Story and photos by SHEHERAZADA HAMEED

Traditional Tongan dances are stories sung by the singers and acted out by the dancers, says travel writer David Stanley, author of Tonga Travel Guide. He explains that in a dance the words are represented by the movements of the hands and feet, not the hips.

But you don’t need to travel to the Pacific Islands to admire Polynesian performing arts.

On a cold February afternoon, Haviar Tuitama Hafoka, Malialole‘s leader and drummer, was teaching children from East High School in Salt Lake City. The dance they were practicing was to be performed at an event just a few weeks later.

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Haviar Tuitama Hafoka with a toere drum.

Haviar was teaching three boys the steps of their part of the choreography. Barefooted, they were slamming their feet against the cold concrete where a small heater was working in an attempt to heat up the large space. While the boys were repeating the steps under the sound of the drums, Haviar’s sister, Singa Fonua, was helping three girls to dress in traditional dresses that she was pulling out of large plastic bins. Behind a screen wall, the girls put on black skirts and colorful belts as decoration.

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Haviar Hafoka is teaching boys from East High School the steps of Otai dance.

Fonua is not only the person in charge of the costumes and appearance. She is also the contact person who manages the calendar of events and practices. For her, Haviar said laughing, “She is like the drill sergeant.”

Malialole (mah-lee-yah-low-lay) is a Salt Lake City-based music, dance and art performing group, promoting cultural awareness among Pacific Islanders. The group performs music and dance from the islands of Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tokelau, Niue, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and the Cook Islands. In their dance studio at 1133 Glendale Drive, rehearsal and lessons are held daily.

The group was named for Haviar’s niece, who was the first to be born in Salt Lake City after the family relocated from Kansas City, Missouri. His mother, Merine Vida Tuitama Hafoka, who is Samoan, founded the dance ensemble. Haviar says Malialole is a symbol of something new, innovative and innocent, which is the beat of the group.

The next part of the practice in the studio is to merge the boys’ dance and the girls’ dance into a choreography. Haviar was directing them while drumming on a large wooden drum. “Keep your arms up higher. Girls, your fingertips should match up to your nose. Try it again. Ready?” The drum was loud and the students danced in the rhythm. The boys’ moves reminded a visitor of martial arts while the girls’ moves were feminine. Fonua reminded the dancers a few times to smile.

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The girls dress while the boys rehearse.

Haviar is strongly connected to the art of drumming. Drums are used to call for attention; to announce a town meeting or prayer; or warn of war. Haviar added, “In Tahitian culture, they [drums] are actually representative of the male and female counterparts.” He also said the stick and the drum represent the mother and the father replenishing the earth. Haviar explained the different types of drums. “The big ones are called lalis, these ones from Tahiti are called toere and the ones from the Cook Island are called pate, the big roller ones are takiruas, but they all serve the same purpose.”

Haviar explained the dance they were practicing is called Otea and is traditionally used to appease the gods in a request to make the land plentiful. “That’s why you see a lot of sensual moves and lots of hip shaking.” He said this particular dance tells the story of the ocean hitting the land.

Haviar gave a break to the dancers and while munching on warm fried chicken and pizza, they prepared for the next dance. Fonua said she makes sure all kids are fed before they leave the practice. She added some of them come from single-parent families or others leave home early for a practice.

For their second dance, they played a song on a large speaker. It filled the room with the sound of a soft and sensual island melody in a native language. The moves are feminine and are performed by girls only. Haviar explained the dance is Aparima and literally means “the kiss of your hands.” It is an interpretive dance and the song is about love and keeping someone close to yourself.

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Girls from East High School dancing Aparima.

Haviar explained that every aspect of dancing in Polynesian culture is about telling a story. The dance is interpretive and lyrical. Meaning that if the dancer’s hands are up, the movements relate to the sky, sun or moon. If the hands are down, they relate to the earth and the ocean.

Haviar said every part of the costume must be made of materials from the land. The colors are meaningful as well. For example, the yellow and red represent fire.

For the parts of the costume, especially the titi skirt, Haviar said, “It is used to enhance the dancer and represents the land wrapped around the individual and is developing the spirit of Tahiti.”

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From left: Singa Fonua, Selu Hafoka and Simi “Jimbo” Hafoka.

Merine Vida said, “Every different island has its meaning and we dance from our soul out to our hands and tell a story about our generations that have past and generations that are in the future for us.”

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Merine Vida Tuitama Hafoka, the founder and director of Malialole Dance Group.

By Pacific Islanders’ tradition, the first and second cousins are considered brothers and sisters. Haviar said the family members in the group number about 70 people. They all participate in Malialole. There are about 30 additional performers from Salt Lake City schools.

The whole family is involved with the dance group. They all have full-time jobs, but when it is time to teach and perform, they are available for the community. The main performing art group is broken into smaller groups by age, starting at 5 years old up to 40 years old. They also have a smaller performing group that goes out and performs at events and weddings.

The Hafoka family and the Malialole dance group are involved in a few different projects. In December 2017, they performed for the Mundi Project. It is a campaign that helps disadvantaged children to have access and play musical instruments and learn music. Haviar’s sister, Selu Hafoka, was the highlighted artist focusing on storytelling through music. She is also one of the choreographers for the ensemble.

Malialole participated in a workshop for the People in the Pacific at Utah Valley University in March 2017. At the annual event, the group teaches students about dance, music and cultural arts in the islands.

Maliaole also manages Talk2Me, an organization reaching out to families and creating a platform to speak about bullying, depression, suicide and family law in Pacific communities around Salt Lake City. About the program and the Pacific youth, Merine Vida said, “The kids understand that they will have bad days, but there is something brighter at the end.”

Another project developed by the Hafoka family is WhoGotRoots. It is a Polynesian high school competition that occurs in April between schools in Salt Lake City. The performers must focus on three island groups. They have 20 minutes to perform three dances or songs and the winners receive a prize of $1,000.

Haviar said students are judged on executing the culture correctly and properly. He thinks the competition gives the kids a platform to present their knowledge of Polynesian music and dance.

Malialole’s involvement in Salt Lake City schools helps to keep Polynesian youth occupied after class. Spending afternoons at practice prevents the young dancers from taking drugs and joining gangs, which are threatening the new generations of Pacific Islanders.

Haviar remembered, “There was a time when my life fell away. And it was our culture. And it was our music. And our dance, that brought us back to reality; to realize that there is something better out there we can be doing. We don’t want our kids to fall into that same sort of habit.”

Haviar said there are more dance groups in town that serve the same purpose. “In our culture, especially, the parents are really grounded, they are really good, they teach us respect, but when kids come out to the society, the kids don’t translate it so well.”

The newest event among the Pacific Islanders in Salt Lake City is the Pasifika First Fridays. It is a Salt Lake City-based initiative dedicated to celebrating Pacific Islander artists and art every first Friday of the month.

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Selu Hafoka singing at the Pasifika First Fridays evening with Nia Haunga and Simi “Jimbo” Hafoka. Haviar Hafoka is on the drums.

Heritage and belonging are essential for the Pacific Islanders and the tradition of celebrating their uniqueness through dance, music and art, every first Friday of the month. This is one more event that will unite the community.

At the EMBER venue in downtown on March 2, 2018, Haviar and his brother Simi “Jumbo” Hafoka opened the evening with some traditional drumming. While the room was filling with guests, Merine Vida sang a song with Selu Hafoka, the lead singer and her daughter, and the vocalists Lavinia Haunga and Nephi Moe. Nana Utai, who is also a choreographer and dance teacher, performed a solo dance.

Haviar wishes the Islanders can be more connected to locals and other communities, but he still puts family first. “Family is the core of everything,” Haviar said.

“What I wish to do more,“ Haviar said, “is to reach out to more individuals to recognize us. We can recognize ourselves within our community, but we are not validated without other communities.”

 

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