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Pacific Rim Rising

Polynesian and island dance troupes
are experiencing a surge in popularity.

By Joyce Tse


ith a fluid gracefulness, the dancers of the Maui Girlz Polynesian Dance Troupe slowly sway their hips in sync to the tune of the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” in a banquet hall in Fullerton, Calif. filled with guests attending a wedding reception. 

       The dancers’ hands expertly maneuver the fire pots they are holding—hollowed out coconut halves containing candles that burn brightly—as they raise them above their heads and bring them lower, all the while careful not to spill the collecting wax on their birds of paradise-patterned dresses.

      When the song is complete, one dancer stays on the dance floor, calling the bride and groom to join her so she can lead them in dancing “Little Grass Shack” in front of friends and family. The other dancers rush to change costumes in an unseen room and then reemerge donning Tahitian grass skirts, coconut bras, elaborate headdresses and Mother of Pearl shell necklaces, taking the wedding party on a visual trip through Hawaii, Tahiti and the Pacific Rim, a band of nations and islands that run from Russia in the north to New Zealand in the south.

       Shows like these are increasingly commonplace now, a testament to the rising popularity of Polynesian dance groups. In performances once limited to Pacific Rim communities living in the United States, Polynesian dance troupes are booked far more often for wedding parties, corporate banquets and other events that underscore their growing mainstream appeal. 

One dance troupe received 300 invitations to perform this year, up from four requests in 2002.

      The number of dance schools, entertainment groups, community-offered recreation classes and the number of Polynesian dance clubs on college and university campuses has swelled as well, and in some cases, dancing clubs once closed to outsiders now accept non-Pacific Islanders for membership. The appeal?  Learning dances as varied as the Pacific Rim countries themselves, like Samoa, where dancers don feathered hip belts and headpieces, to New Zealand, home of the Maori people, who dance with poi balls, lightweight balls that are attached to strings and skillfully swung around the body and over the head.

      Reasons abound for the popularity. Some say it has to do with the historical migration of islanders to the mainland—and growing numbers of Pacific Rim immigrants coming to the U.S—and every group’s need to translate their culture in a new home. Others cite tourism in a post 9/11 environment; overseas travel by Americans may have increased in the years since the terrorist attacks, but many Americans also have rediscovered the rich offerings at home.

       Regardless of the reasons, interest is up, and that means big business for Polynesian dance troupes, some of which have performed for Hollywood premieres and mainstream talk shows.
      “Everything wanes in and out,” said Dr. Rona Halualani, who studies Hawaiian communities and identities and teaches at San Jose State University. “But in the last eight years, I think that [Polynesian dance] has become a growing interest that gained momentum. There’s a real fascination with Hawaii as a destination spot.   If anything, [the dance] might have more global appeal. There are now halau [hula schools] all over the world.”

      There are so many groups and dancers that now Southern California is home to its own hula competition, E Hula Mau, which is now 12 years in the running. This year’s event will be held during Labor Day weekend in September, with 14 halau competing against one another this year, up from 11 last year.


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