We were most excited about the music and dance during Heiva, and we dinghied to shore well before the start time on the first evening of competition. We learned during the first few scheduled events that here in Fakarava things actually begin on time and sometimes even early if everyone’s ready to go. We took seats closest to where the musical group was set up and enjoyed watching the arrival of the crowd. There were two sections marked “reserved for VIPs” and we learned later that one of them was actually for cruisers and guests of the pensions and resorts. Our seats were better, though, front row, in full view of the judges’ table and surrounded by the delegations from Kauehi and Niau, a lively bunch of mostly teens armed with cell phones and iPads doing what teens everywhere do, taking selfies and texting. I noticed that all of the girls — all of them — wore black pearl stud earrings, and some even wore beautiful strands of black pearls around their necks. Hmmm. This bears looking into, I thought.
The evening event began with a welcome from the committee chairman and a prayer by the chaplain, then the mistress of ceremonies, the pretty barefoot Tahitian wife of the clinician who runs the medical station, introduced the first act, a percussion group from Fakarava. They entered to the accompaniment of the long, mournful tones of the conch shell, then kicked into magnificent drumming that I could have listened to for hours. They were followed by a singing group who had our seat mates dissolved into giggles during a song that, judging by the hip gyrations of the singer, must have been pretty randy, not that we could tell because it was sung in the local tongue.
And then came the main event. A stout woman wearing the traditional Mother Hubbard dress introduced a troupe of dancers and we think the theme was a wedding celebration but the French explanation went by too fast for me to grasp and our French-fluent friend Diana was sitting across the floor in the VIP section with the other cruisers and tourists. Accompanied by the drum and wood block group from earlier, along with a few other musicians, the dancers launched into a performance that took our breath away.
The women danced, then the men, then solo dancers, then the women and men gyrated together. It was a nonstop, exhilarating celebration of Paumotu culture and this beautiful village. The older woman who introduced them periodically wandered among the dancers, added occasional story commentary and sometimes even did the dance moves with them. Everyone exuded joy and we could tell the dances and gestures held deep meaning for them and we in the audience shared in their pleasure. Even the teens around us put their phones away and watched in rapt attention. We can’t imagine that any well-rehearsed and polished group in Tahiti could have delighted us more than the enchanting, rapturous spectacle this tiny community delivered.
We learned later, as the committee chairman gave us cruiser women frangipani leis, that until this year the town hadn’t done anything like this at all for Heiva. The dance leader is the school headmistress and it was through her force of will and the dedication of all the drummers, singers and dancers that the village re-discovered their cultural roots. In a community this small — 850 people on the entire atoll, and far fewer in Rotoava — it’s incredible that so many men and women rose to the occasion, and a credit to the headmistress for the high quality of the performances, costumes and set decorations. We feel privileged to have witnessed it, especially after we’d berated ourselves for not getting to Tahiti in time for The Big Event. Jack and I agree it’s one of the top experiences we’ve had so far on our journey, not just because it was so unexpected, but because it was that good.