The History of Polynesian Dance

Written by pamela ann ludwig
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The History of Polynesian Dance
The islands of Polynesia share certain similarities in dance styles. (danse polynésienne image by serge simo from Fotolia.com)

Polynesia is made up of a series of archipelagos in the Pacific Ocean, comprised of nations including Fiji, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Tonga, Samoa, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) as well as the U.S islands of Hawaii and the French territories of French Polynesia (also referred to as Tahiti.) Though distinct in their dance styles, the islands of Polynesia share certain similarities in many aspects of their respective cultures, including dance.

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Topics and Themes

Many dances of Polynesia are based on religious or nature themes, animals or are inspired by the stories of gods and goddesses. Many take ideas, choreography and movements from nature. The Haka from New Zealand (Aoterea) was originally a dance accompanied by a chant which would be performed by men as a preparation for going into battle. It is now performed by New Zealand rugby teams before matches. Many of the Polynesian Islanders share the same or similar creation myths, and some dances integrate theatre and poetry with dance to pass on these stories.

Choreography

Many Polynesian dance styles mainly use the movements of the hips. The most famous examples of these types are the hula from Hawaii and Tahitian dance from French Polynesia. All forms use the arms and hands as a way of communicating. Polynesian men and women dance and take part in performances and dance as a social activity,though choreography for males and females are often different from one another.

Costuming

Much of the traditional costuming of Polynesian dances uses natural elements, such as leaves, bark, coconuts, shells, and feathers. Since contact with Westerners, new fabrics have been introduced to add variety in costuming. Classic Polynesian movements are exaggerated by costuming. Because of the placement on the hips of the Tahitian costuming, you can see the hips shake more in Tahitian dance and the movement of knees is hidden by the long skirt. The sway of the leaf skirt worn by hula dancers adds to the overall aesthetic of the dance.

Contact with Europeans; Colonization

The Western influences in Polynesian cultural forms can be seen mostly in the music and in some elements of costuming. In certain areas, European colonisers attempted to eradicate some native forms of dance altogether, so some choreography is simply a guess as to what the original looked like. Samoan dance has been changed little since contact with Westerners, though entire forms of dances from French Polynesia were totally banned and have only been reconstructed recently by memory.

Popularity Outside of Polynesia

In the 20th century, "tiki bars" popped up around the United States. These theme bars and restaurants use decor, drinks, food and music to evoke the sights, sounds and flavours of Polynesia. Many also feature dancers performing choreography from Polynesia to add to the ambience. Polynesian dance styles are also taught at dance schools and community centres all over the U.S.

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