Far from being just a piece of local folklore, Tahitian dance, called ‘Ori Tahiti, is an integral part of Polynesian culture. And yet, it is an art that once almost completely disappeared. Today it is part of everyday life in The Islands of Tahiti, much to the delight of visiting tourists. Enjoy the exotic costumes, sensual dance steps and traditional music in the magical and magnificent spectacles like the annual Heiva festival.

Tahitian dance

A tradition under threat…

Ori Tahiti show at Heiva I Tahiti © KMH Media Production

The history of Tahitian dance

The ‘Ori Tahiti was in danger of disappearing altogether when the missionaries came to Tahiti. The sensuality of the rhythmic dancing and accompanying to’ere drums was too much for their delicate dispositions, so they banned it.

Fortunately, the ban wasn’t repected by everybody and the tradition was passed from mother to daugther and father to son in secret. Today,

Tahitian dance has recovered its true place as a fundamental part of Polynesian culture, alongside the rhythm of the to’ere drums and the singing and chanting of the pupu himene choirs. There are even courses in traditional dance in schools and colleges throughout The Islands of Tahiti.

Dancer from The Islands of Tahiti with sunset © Alikaphoto

Tahitian dance costumes

The costumes worn by the dancers have their own significance. Each element is a cultural symbol that represents the deep underlying connection between the islanders and the land they live in.

Woven pandanus tree leaves represent nature and the land. Seashells are the ocean and its rich variety of marine life. Feathers, often worn in headpieces, symbolize the grace and beauty of the birdlife.

And flowers are the vitality and joy of life inherent in every Polynesian.


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Musical instruments

The musicians that accompany the dancing play a role as important as the dancers themselves. They create the hypnotic, enchanting rhythms that are essential to the performance. Four string ‘ukulele guitars provide the melody, while the rhythm comes from the pahu tupai drum. The wooden to’ere, tari parau and fa’atete give the music its unique, rapidity and vivacity. The pu is the conch which adds a powerful deep base to the singing and the vivo is the nasal flute which plays the gentle solo melodies.

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Ukulele© Hélène Havard
Polynesian instruments c Tahiti Tourisme

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The unique and thriving Polynesian culture in The Islands of Tahiti captivates visitors to French Polynesia. It expresses itself in the traditional tattoos that symbolize the wearer’s personal history, social status and cultural heritage. It is also represented by Polynesian cuisine, which is reputed for its exotic flavors and fresh ingredients. Immerse yourself in the ancestral culture of The Islands of Tahiti and be a part of the Mana.

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Tahitian dance events

Dance troupes perform in big dance spectacles throughout the year, but the ultimate event in the Polynesian cultural calendar is the Heiva I Tahiti festival. Held every year during the month of July, it is a competition of traditional dance and song involving groups from all over The Islands of Tahiti. But there are also many other opportunities to feel the special mana of Tahitian dance.

The marae of Arahurahu in Paea is the magical setting for a sumptuous dance spectacle in July. In September, dance groups from all the neighboring atolls gather in Rangiroa for the Farerei Haga festival. In December, the smaller, but equally talented dance troupes from Tahiti, compete in the Hura Tapairu dance competition at the Maison de la Culture. And all the main hotel resorts regularly stage dance spectacles which captivate and delight visiting tourists.

Heiva i Tahiti

The Heiva i Tahiti is the most popular and important event in the cultural calendar of The Islands of Tahiti. A colorful celebration of traditional chants, music and dancing, in a competition which brings together dance troupes from every corner of French Polynesia. The evening performances are a rapturous explosion of color and movement.

Hura Tapairu

Created in 2004, the Hura Tapairu is a dancing competition for small dance troupes (less than 30 dancers on stage) presenting original performances. It is held in Tahiti each year in November.

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