Sometimes what keeps us grounded and dreaming are the very things rooted in our past – that is, the reflections in which we call home. We speak to Heiata Lee, a native Tahitian and the founder of ‘Ori Tahiti Singapore (“OTS”) on what ‘Ori Tahiti is about, and how knowing where you belong can carry you through any challenges that may come your way.
Dance is the very reflection of humanity itself. Our beliefs, stories, emotions and connections to one another are demonstrated through the most evident form of the self, our body. It tells of the various types of connections we make with each other. Either in reaction to our surroundings such as the Capoeira, or to convey the raw emotions we feel for one another through abstract dance.
But one very distinct form of dance speaks of our connection to life itself. ‘Ori Tahiti is a Polynesian dance that weaves stories about birth, death, harvest and even war in its movements. However, ‘Ori Tahiti should not be confused with Hawaiian dance, which primarily focuses on Mother Nature and the land.
“The main difference of ‘Ori Tahiti is the fast and rhythmic hip movements, also known as Ote’a, set to the beat of the toere (drum).” – Heiata Lee
Almost lost to the past, ‘Ori Tahiti has had its fair share of setbacks. It was classified as sensual entertainment and banned by English missionaries in 1797 which resulted in most native dancers ceasing to perform it out of their fear of the law. It was on the brink of vanishing till a teacher named Madeleine Moua brought Tahiti dance back to the public eye and reinstated its’ original significance in Tahitian culture through recording the dance steps in writing.
Today, ‘Ori Tahiti is a significant aspect of Tahitian culture and many key figures in Tahitian dance are pushing to formally record this legacy in the UNESCO’s world cultural heritage in order to preserve it for future generations to come.
Growing up dancing ‘Ori Tahiti back in Tahiti, Heiata realised she missed her culture when she was abroad in France for her studies. In order to reconnect with her roots, she joined a Polynesian association. It was then that she realised the importance of her Tahitian identity. “Cultural identity is the one aspect of ‘Ori Tahiti that I believe strongly defines me as a dancer,” Heiata mused. “It is important to understand the Tahitian language, the lyrics, the rhythm and the body language. This is how we bring songs to life.”
Realising that ‘Ori Tahiti was a treasure of her own heritage that should not be lost again, Heiata Lee believed that the world should know more about her culture and sought to spread the heritage and her passion in ‘Ori Tahiti everywhere she went.
When she arrived in Singapore back in 2011, her first inclination was to start a school doing what she loved – OTS. Despite having returned back to Tahiti to further her skills, her mind is always on improving the dancers she trained back in Singapore.
Since the set-up of OTS, Heiata believes that her greatest achievement is not merely just attracting more dancers to the art of ‘Ori Tahiti, but to have these dancers travel to Tahiti and experience the culture themselves through “obtaining [their] beginner’s certification at the Conservatoire Artistique de la Polynesie Francaise” and “tak[ing] workshops from renowned Tahitian dance schools”.
Aside from exposing the world to what ‘Ori Tahiti has to offer, Heaita admits that there is more work to be done. “To an extent, I think ‘Ori Tahiti can lose its identity because foreign dance schools lack understanding of the culture or teach incorrect moves,” Heaita cautioned, citing modernising it or associating it with fitness as unwise ways of spreading the culture. She went on to say that: “The next step for ‘Ori Tahiti is to protect its heritage [by preserving] its origins.” Indeed, steps are being implemented by the French Polynesian government to preserve its traditions.
Another potential obstacle to ‘Ori Tahiti may be the very medium that introduced it to the world – social media. As ‘Ori Tahiti bases its dance strongly on understanding the culture and stories used to convey the emotions, social media might not be the best form of education for the dancer. “‘Ori Tahiti is an art you have to feel. It’s the Tahitian identity and Tahitian people are proud of it. We need to respect it.” Heaita said, pointing out that learning it online will only make the dancer know how to execute the movements but not the emotions.
The best way, Heiata believes, is to attend classes. Either through attending workshops from renowned ‘Ori Tahiti teachers or even travelling to Tahiti itself, there are many other options for the dancer aside from learning it from the internet. Better yet, if you are in Singapore, you can drop by OTS to pick up some skills of your own.
Conducted at The Substation on Armenian Street, you can pick from either the beginners class Heipoe (black pearl necklace) or the intermediate class Heuira (flame necklace). To find out more (including a free trial class), click here!
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