So You Think You Can Dance introduced traditional Tahitian dance to the country at large this summer, when Arizona contestant Lauren Froderman performed one of these dances on the hit program. But before that, Polynesian dance and music have been kept alive as an art form and a competitive dance style by Polynesian artists throughout the world. Locally, Jimmy Jay Tonga has created the Tagaloa Dance Troupe and is bringing his expertise in Tahitian dance and music to Utahns of all ages who might want to learn about the dance, its storytelling traditions and its music.
“My brother, sister-in-law and I were the main group leaders of an award-winning Tahitian dance troupe in Southern California,” said Tonga. “When we came to Utah we looked for a dance group to join, but didn’t find one with the level of commitment and discipline we were so used to back in SoCal. So we decided to start a brand new dance troupe with a few other friends and create the group that we knew we could be proud of and hopefully raise the bar of commitment, structure here in Utah.”
The Tagaloa Dance Troupe meets in a Taylorsville studio and classes are available for men, women and children. The classes offer an opportunity to learn about the history of the culture and its songs and dances that have been passed down from generation to generation.
“But be warned, this type of dance isn’t for the faint at heart … physically and sexually.” explained Tonga, referring to the rapid hip movements and sensual swaying in some of the dances, as well as traditional costumes that present female dancers in bikini tops and hula skirts. Men usually wear a hula skirt, which are made of straw, leaves and other organic greens.
“Tahitian dance is from the island of Tahiti and it is a series of movements that were created by the Tahitians to tell stories of legends, wars and to entice a possible suitor,” Tonga added. “I teach as much of the history of the movements of the dances that have been taught to me. I’ve researched, learned songs, and listened to the tupuna [elders] about the history and meanings of our culture.”
Historians believe that Southern Asian explorers migrated to the Pacific Islands located south of Hawaii and northeast of New Zealand as early as 4000 BC, establishing island colonies and kingdoms. Beginning in the 1500s, both French and English explorers attempted to claim specific islands for their own, and continued the rivalry of the mostly peaceful island people until Queen Pomare accepted French protection of Tahiti and Moorea, another island close by, in 1847. In 1957 all of the islands of Tahiti were reconstituted as a French territory, called French Polynesia, and in 1998, French Polynesia began to self govern with a president and an assembly.
In the early 1800s, when English missionaries entrenched themselves in the culture of the islands, all traditional dance, song and entertainment were banned, as the English found traditional Tahitian dances provocative and offensive. Not until the beginning of the 20th century did French authorities authorize dancing to celebrate the taking of the Bastille. Shortly after that, dancing became part of all official Tahitian festivities.
The dance (which include male-only, female-only and mixed) tells stories about Polynesian history, including how the gods formed the world, historic seductions, war and the arrival of visitors to the islands. The dance also conveys specific messages to a watching audience in a language created by the moves and hand positions. Some Tahitian dance also includes fire and acrobatics to enhance the story.
“I was born and raised in the South Bay of Los Angeles in the city of Carson,” said Tonga, 37, and was raised LDS. “I came out in 2000 to my father, who in turn kicked me back in and told me that he would find help for me. I was in reparative therapy during that time and I met several men who I became very close with but gave up the therapy in 2004 and came back out.”
Tonga’s late mother was of Samoan and European descent while his father is Tongan. He moved to Utah in 2006, joining his brother and sister-in-law, and graduated from the Utah College of Massage Therapy last October. Tonga is also an accomplished drummer and arranger of Tahitian music.
“Our drums and drumming style are very different from other countries,” he explained. “They are hollowed out logs of the rosewood tree, which is called Milo in our language. This log drum is called a To’ere, the bass drum, Tari Parau, and the snare drum, Fa’atete, and is made from the same wood covered in shark or calf skin.”
The drumming style depicts specific dances, with faster paced drumming accompanying war or creation storylines and slower beats depicting sensuality and love.
“I have competed with my old dance troupe Hitia O Te Ra in the San Jose Tahiti Fete, the Heiva i Honolulu twice and even the Fano Maohi competition here in Utah,” said Tonga. “In all competitions, we received first place honors, particularly with the music I arranged and for me being the best Ra’atira [storyteller].”
The largest gathering of Tahitian dance and celebration is on the island of Tahiti each July. For 122 years, the annual Heiva Festival is celebrated, bringing tourists and locals from all of the Polynesian islands to a grand festival that features handmade crafts from artisans from each island, participation of island locals in ancient sporting events, and recreations of dance performances — as well as dance competitions.
“I was so happy to see my Polynesian culture portrayed in such a way,” said Tonga, referring to the So You Think You Can Dance performance. “Te Au I Te Po [day and night] was beautifully portrayed by dancers and the choreographer, who is my friend.”
The Tagaloa Dance Troupe is just getting started with Tonga, his brother, and sister-in-law sharing teaching duties of specific classes and music. Classes have grown and more will be added as the business grows and word-of-mouth spreads among Utah dance enthusiasts.
“We are currently working on our Facebook page Tagaloa so that all who would like to learn more can e-mail and ask questions about us,” said Tonga. “I get a sense of pride when I see these little 5-year-olds practicing their tamaus [hip sways] and when I speak of our people’s legends or when I sing our aparimas to each other because I know that my people’s legacy will live on.”
Tonga hopes his students will appreciate the cultural dance and continue learning the art form so he will be able to produce competitive dancers for local, national and international Tahitian dance competitions. One day, one of his students may be competing on a level that may land them on a national television dance completion.
To learn more about classes with the Tagaloa Dance Troupe, contact Jimmy Jay Tonga on Facebook, call 310-400-4999, or e-mail [email protected]