This is part 2 of a 5 part series delving into the origins of the modern version of Tahitian dance.
By Eric Ka’ahele Morales
Tahiti to Hawaii
The creation of the ‘ahuroa occurred shortly after the revival of Tahitian dance, which had been largely suppressed by the work of European missionaries. It was in 1956 that Madeleine Mou’a’s dance group, Heiva, gained recognition for being the first professional troupe to take Tahitian dance out of the place of shame imposed upon it by the church, restoring a sense of pride in the native dance form. Mou’a was a school principal and actively recruited students to join her group. Soon, a slew of performers were taking up the dance. Many of these people began leaving Tahiti to perform in other venues. Roiti Tahauri Sylva, one of Mou’a’s students, was among these performers, heading off to Hawaii in 1959.
The 1950s and 1960s brought about overwhelming change to the cultural landscape of Hawaii. In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state in the United States of America, leading to an increase in the urban development of the islands, specifically in Waikiki, Oahu, which quickly became a center of tourism. At the core of the growing tourism market, in the heart of Waikiki existed Queen’s Surf Restaurant and Nightclub featuring Tavana’s Polynesia, which was a nightly show consisting of dances from Tahiti, Hawaii, Samoa, New Zealand, and Tonga.
Tavana Hare Salmon, a native Tahitian who grew up in Hawaii, was the show coordinator. He and his family scouted the islands for performers who had talent suitable for the productions, always attempting to engineer the next big show. Each night, ten to twelve dance numbers were used to provide an hour of entertainment for the spectators. Believing that the current show repertoire consisted of too many fast and up-tempo beats, Tavana decided to incorporate a slower, more formal number. Working in conjunction with Roiti Tahauri Sylva, they both helped to create the first ‘ahuroa performance. He provided ideas, a stage for artistic freedom, an audience, and additional performers; she provided her talent and skill, choreographing the first actual dance. In this venue, the two were able to present their traditions to a new audience any way they pleased.