Three years ago, Lisa Aguilar almost decided to retire from teaching and choreographing Tahitian dance. She was in Tahiti at the time, studying with her mentor Tahitian dance legend Coco Hotahota. Having taught and mentored three generations of her own dancers, Lisa figured it was time for her to move on and let the younger choreographers predominate the Tahitian dance world in the States. When she told this to Coco, he got up angrily and left the room.
He was gone for long time, Lisa remembers. When he came back, he had brought what looked to her like a fruit bowl, except it was long and shaped like a canoe. “He looks at me and he says, ‘All these years you came here. I’m mad at you. You wasted my time.’”
Coco has taught and mentored Lisa since she first visited Tahiti in 1979. In those years, he shared much of Tahitian dance and cultural traditions with her. To him, her retiring was like throwing away all the knowledge he had shared. He didn’t buy the “I’m too old” argument either, which is why he brought out the bowl.
“Each year of your life, you have been putting something into this bowl. Your love, your spirit, your mana,” Coco told her. “Your bowl is beautiful, but now you want to take this bowl and just throw it away. So I’m going to give you this umete as a reminder of what you have to offer. Your bowl is overflowing.”
The bowl, called an umete, is now something Lisa brings to her last rehearsals before any big shows. It’s made of a piece of wood that you won’t find growing anymore in Tahiti because it is carved from one of the ancient canoes early Polynesians used to travel from Tahiti to Hawai‘i.
Madeleine Moua and the revival of Tahitian dance
Lisa is the Ra‘atira Pupu of Te Mana O Te Ra, a Tahitian dance company based in Walnut Creek that she started with her husband Rey in 1997. Her Tahitian dance journey began in the mid-70s when her hula teacher presented her with an opportunity to study and perform Tahitian dance. Lisa’s mother disapproved.
“That’s a vulgar form of dancing. I’m not going to have my daughter running around naked and gyrating her hips,” Lisa recalls her mother saying.
Lisa’s Filipina mother viewed this dance genre in ways similar to the French colonists, who annexed Tahiti in 1880 and suppressed Tahitian culture – dance, music, and language specifically – allowing dancing and music only on specific decreed holidays. Tahitian dance made a comeback in 1952 after Madeleine Moua and her entourage of Tahitian female dancers protested the ban.
Disturbed by the suppression of Tahitian culture, Madeleine prepared for one of the dancing holidays by gathering together a group of beautiful Tahitian women – those that fit the stereotype of long thick hair and curvaceous bodies – and putting together choreography for them. On the day that Madeleine’s group finally performed, Tahitians and Europeans were in awe. Their dancing made a bold statement: “You’re looking at this and you’re admiring it. Well, you’re looking at my culture, a culture that you are holding back. That which you find beautiful you’re holding back.” The ban on Tahitian dancing and music was lifted that year.
Madeleine’s influence extends beyond the removal of the ban. “She’s the one that refined a lot of the dance style that we do today,” Lisa says. The hip movements, the way female dancers keep their legs close together, the presentation of dancers in straight, military-style lines: All of these details Madeleine formalized.
Lisa’s piece for the Festival this year honors Madeleine, as well as three other influential female figures in Tahitian culture. She points out, “If it weren’t for her making that gutsy statement, where would dancing be right now?” The theme of strong women and female empowerment permeates Te Mana’s performance of “Vahines de Tahiti.”
“I’m not Tahitian but the spirit is there.”
Lisa travels to Tahiti every year, and she will be packing her bags again this July. She won’t be traveling alone, however, as Te Mana O Te Ra has been invited to perform at the Heiva, French Polynesia’s month-long cultural festival that Lisa describes as a mixture between the Olympics, an all-county fair, and every dance competition imaginable. It is a big honor for Te Mana O Te Ra to be performing its own 45-minute showcase at this year’s Heiva. “For years, it’s been a closed door for people like us,” Lisa says. “You have to be Tahitian.”
For Lisa, the recognition means a lot. From being accepted as a choreographer by Coco’s Tahitian students to receiving the Tahitian government’s blessing to perform at the Heiva this year, Lisa has gained recognition in a strict dance world that doesn’t often include outsiders. Her Tahitian name, given to her by Coco, is To‘ahuripapa which means “to be blessed to constantly create.” “I’m not Tahitian but the spirit is there,” Lisa says.
While a lot of the groups competing at the Heiva will be sticking to conservative Tahitian dance motifs, Lisa describes her style as “tradition with a pop.” Coco once advised her, “Don’t take away tradition. Do tradition but add your own spirit, your own pop.” And she did just that. Lisa gets her pop from people of the Cook Islands, whose dance, drumming, and costuming inspires her. Elements like dancing on the toes, wearing skirts that cut right below the knee, and varied drum patterns are present in her work. She also innovates on the choreography and how the dancers work to hit different parts of the drum beats she uses while still keeping the movement within tradition.
Knowing how involved she is with Tahitian dance and culture, people often ask Lisa, “Why are you so enamored with another culture? What are you?” And when they hear she is Filipina, they then wonder, “Well, aren’t you proud to be Filipino?”
To these questions, she answers, “I’m very proud of my family heritage. Yes, I have been embraced somebody else’s culture. But if all of us embraced other cultures, the world would be a better place. Think about it: Would there be any fighting if we had that respect for other people’s traditions?”
The world united through dance. Now wouldn’t that be a beautiful sight to behold?
mana – spirit.
umete – a rare ceremonial food bowl in Polynesian culture.
Heiva – an iconic annual event in Tahiti that celebrates Polynesian culture; hei means to assemble, and va means community places.
Ra‘atira Pupu – director.
Te Mana O Te Ra’s website – http://temanaotera.org/Iaorana!.html
List of performers, including Te Mana O Te Ra, at Weekend 4 of the 2012 Festival – http://www.worldartswest.org/main/preview_weekend4.asp