Tahiti's Heiva Festival: The surprising home to one of the world's great dance competitions

Here beside the lagoon there's a silence to Tahiti that reflects exactly where it is I am. For this is The end of the road – no bitumen's laid beyond the tiny village of Teahupoo on Tahiti's smallest island, Tahiti Iti. I'm sipping Hinano lager beneath peaks that jut from jungle. There's a pod of dolphins nearby, all I hear in these last moments of the day are the animals moving across the water, and the rustle of coconut trees on a faint easterly breeze.

But it's late June in Tahiti, so I know the silence won't last long: not in any nook nor cranny of this entire country. Should you visit French Polynesia through the first half of each year (and especially if you visit during the month of June) – you won't believe the racket. The silence ends where I'm sitting now, as a great commotion echoes across the valley. Twenty drummers pummel their instruments as 30 dancers shake their bodies. Hips look double-jointed, knees bend to the earth. I'm here two days before Polynesia's major cultural event – one of the world's longest running festivals – and Tahiti, nay, French Polynesia (for this event involves all 65 inhabited islands) – is officially a madhouse while teams go through their last crazed preparations (some teams won't finish till dawn). At every football field, and every public school; and from every strip of public land beside the lagoon, teams of dancers (more than 8000 people compete across the islands) ready themselves for the greatest dance contest on Earth ... Heiva.

Forty-eight hours later I'm gathering with a crowd to watch the official start to this year's Heiva Festival. The Olympics may well have its flaming torch, but Heiva allows its competitors to actually scald themselves with fire. Volcanic rocks from the Papenoo Valley (off the east coast of Tahiti) have been laid out for fire walkers. Willing locals follow the event's Great Priest across the burning rocks.

Heiva began in 1983, but the event's origins date back hundreds of years. Locals gathered for dancing, singing and sports events, travelling across the five island archipelagos of French Polynesia to compete with each other. But when the missionaries arrived in the 1800s they forbid the gathering. Ruler King Pomare II declared dancing illegal; when the French annexed Tahiti in 1881, they brought the contest back ... with a catch, locals could dance and sing on one day only, July 14 – Bastille Day, France's Day Of Independence.

These days, the competition lasts throughout the first two weeks of July. Every night across the islands (though the most frenetic evening shows are held in French Polynesia's capital, Papeete) teams of dancers in elaborate costumes handcrafted with local materials compete against each other to a live orchestra of sweat-soaked drummers. On the last night of competition at Papeete's cultural centre beside the island's largest harbour, thousands of locals gather to holler for their local team. Each team has spent six months preparing, so the tension's sky-high before teams take to the stage. When the music begins, the Polynesian drum beat goes straight to my heart.

Tahiti's never still even at daytime through Heiva. All across Tahiti, locals compete for the honour of being crowned Mr Tahiti, competing in outrigger canoe racing, javelin throwing and traditional events you won't ever see anywhere else on Earth, such as fruit-carrying and coconutting (climbing, picking, cracking and scraping coconuts).

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Return economy airfares with Air Tahiti Nui (via Auckland) start from $1319, and $3849 in business, see airtahitinui.com.au

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For tickets and more information on Heiva and accommodation packages, see tahititourisme.com.au

Craig Tansley was a guest of Tahiti Tourisme and Air Tahiti Nui

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