This is part 3 of a 5 part series delving into the origins of the modern version of Tahitian dance.
By Eric Ka’ahele Morales
As stated earlier, the dance Tavana and Roiti created, the ‘ahuroa, was rooted within the dance form, the ‘aparima. Translated, ‘aparima means “movement of the hand,” with apa meaning “movement” and rima meaning “hand or arm.” Whereas in other Tahitian dance forms the hands are more ornamental, in the ‘aparima, the hands serve as a means of conveying a narrative and is the only one that is always meant to pantomime an actual story.
The two categories of ‘aparima are the ‘aparima vāvā and the ‘aparima hīmene. Male and females may dance both types of the ‘aparima. The costuming is flexible and can vary from a pāreu tied around the waist with a coconut bra or a separate cloth covering the chest of female dancers. Male dancers can leave their chest bare or adorn it with leis. More skirts and headdresses can be used by either sex. Gestures used in the dance are either descriptive, symbolic, or ornamental. An example of a descriptive gesture would be if the song were to reference sleep, the dancer may place both their open palms together on one side of their tilted head to mime the act of sleeping. A common symbolic gesture is putting one’s closed fists on the hips to mark the beginning or the end of the ‘aparima.
The Tahitian word, vāvā, means mute, thus the ‘aparima vāvā is largely a pantomime, as neither the dancers nor the musicians provide any lyrical accompaniment. For the most part, it is performed in a kneeling position, with dancers acting out stories, mainly being pulled from the daily life of the islands and lasting under a minute. The music is secondary to the dance, used to accentuate and coordinate the gestures of the dancers, and the instruments used are primarily the pahu (base drum) and the tō’ere (slit-log drum), with the vivo (Tahitian nose flute) occasionally making an appearance.
Hīmene, by contrast, is derived from the English word, hymn. The ‘aparima hīmene is thus reliant on a sung narrative to tell a story and is considerably longer in length than the ‘aparima vāvā. In it, dancers pair mainly symbolic movements to correspond with the lyrics. The songs used can come from the existing Tahitian folk song repertoire or be the original creation of the group director. In some cases, the group director may take an existing folk song and restructure the music or lyrics to fit their artistic desires. Folk songs that have already been affected by popular music genres or that have been fused with Western musical influences are also still viable options for the ‘aparima hīmene. These outside influences are especially significant in the instrumental accompaniment, which usually includes stringed instruments, such as the guitar or the ukulele, along with the use of drums or the vivo. Content wise, the song chosen for the ‘aparima hīmene is characterized by its focus on describing the abstract, such as emotions and thoughts towards other people, places, or objects. ‘Aparima hīmene can be based on a story that reflects childhood memories with a loved member of the community or they can be about the simple joys of one’s homeland.
Inherent in both types of the ‘aparima is flexibility, in costuming, music, and even choreography. In fact, many of the gestures are not fixed, and numerous interpretations of songs can be used that incorporate a wide range of gestures. Also, the choreography of dances can easily be adjusted; for instance, performances where the dances are standing can easily be altered to take place in a sitting position.