This year marks the 130th celebration of the annual Heiva I Tahiti, a spectacular month-long celebration of Polynesian culture. It’s the largest and most popular festival of its kind in French Polynesia, showcasing the very best in traditional dancing, artistry and athleticism. While preparation is already underway, the month of July is the best time to visit Tahiti and witness this celebration in full force. The event is held at the beautiful To’ata Square in Papeete, Tahiti, and we’ve got your exclusive tickets to the festivities!
The Celebration of Life
In Tahitian, hei means “to assemble” and va means “community,” so the word heiva refers to any organized activity or gathering in French Polynesia. However, the proper Heiva I Tahiti has become known as “The Celebration of Life” because it is the symbol of Polynesian culture. It serves as an iconic event for a group of people that are especially proud of their unique heritage.
The History of Heiva
Music and dance have always been a central part of Polynesian culture. Tahitian dance, or “Ori Tahiti,” is one of the most sophisticated and ritualized art forms of all time. However, it was not always practiced as freely in Tahiti as it is today. When European Protestant missionaries arrived in the 19th century, they found such “erotic” displays to be offensive and King Pomare II legally banned the tradition in 1819. Thankfully, the Tahitian people found a way to keep dance alive, practicing the ritual in secret and passing on the tradition in anticipation for its revival.
After Tahiti was annexed by France in 1881, the Heiva festival began to take shape. At that time, the event was called Tiurai – a derivation of the word July. It was meant to coincide with France’s national holiday known as Bastille Day, which is still celebrated every year on July 14th. On this one day, France allowed Polynesians to partake in their traditional celebrations. The first festival included games, entertainment and singing, but dance was still somewhat restricted, forcing them to perform a much more “sanitized” version of Tahitian dance.
It wasn’t until 1956 that Madeleine Moua, a high school principal from Papeete, spearheaded the full revival of Tahitian dance by forming the dance troupe Heiva Tahiti. Soon after, traditional dance resumed its rightful place as a vibrant part of Tahitian culture. Then in 1985, Tahiti obtained greater political autonomy from France and they renamed the festival Heiva I Tahiti.
The Heiva Experience
Each dance performance is a unique creation. The music and choreography reflect a historical and legendary theme, highlighting the drama of the opera and the distinct influence of Tahiti’s ancestral traditions. The dancers rigorously train for six or more months, and their costumes are handcrafted from materials indigenous to the area. The live orchestras are made up of five to fifty musicians using traditional instruments such as the nasal flute or “vivo,” marine shells or “pu,” and the ukulele.
Beyond the dancing, the Heiva I Tahiti is also a traditional sports competition. The sporting events are based on ancient athletic activities and include heavy stone lifting, javelin throwing, outrigger canoe races, and a fruit carrying competition in which men sprint carrying large bunches of bananas tied to poles.
Here’s a fantastic article about experiencing the Heiva I Tahiti and below is an entertaining video that captures a dance performance from last year’s festival. The 2012 edition promises to be an incredible show with record-breaking participation of over 3,500 artists and 38 professional groups singing and dancing on stage. Both Moorea and Bora Bora also have their own versions of the Heiva. Moorea’s will be held from June 16 to July 14 in the Afareaitu District, while the festivities in Bora Bora will take place from June 22 to July 29 at Moto’i Place in Vaitape.
If you ask us, this is an event that you have to experience for yourself. We’ve put together a very special 2012 Heiva Tahiti package including free daily breakfasts, a circle island tour, and a 7-night stay at the Sofitel Tahiti Maeva Beach Resort. Once you book your travel with us, we can arrange to purchase your Heiva tickets ahead of time so they’ll be ready when you arrive. Just ask your reservation specialist for more information. We hope to see you there!