Tupua Sets MCC on Fire with Polynesian Dances


Natalie Overton

On Saturday, April 18, the University of California, Santa Barbara MultiCultural Center hosted Tupua, a well-renowned Polynesian dance group. Named after the founder of the group, Tupua is based in Orange County and ventures around all of California. They presented a myriad of dances from a wide selection of Pacific cultures, including Hawaiian, Maori, Tahitian, Australian, and Samoan.

The warm, lazy afternoon was brought to life by enthusiastic screams and shouts from the dancers and the audience. The performers shimmied and waved, encouraged by “aloha nui,” which means “lots of love” in Hawaiian.

“I have never danced Polynesian dance before,” said John Crowe, a first-year physics major, who was at his first MCC event. “This is going to be a new experience for me, and I think that it will be a good opportunity too, for learning new things.”

Thrumming drumbeats led the dancers onto the stage where the men and women of Tupua welcomed their audience with a traditional Tahitian greeting called “Otea,” a ceremonial welcome dance for special guests.

First-year English major Jessica Stein said that her favorite part of the event was the volunteer participation. “I think it was really great to get the community involved,” she said.

Next up was a hula, showcasing the Hawaiian dance implements: the “uli uli,” the “ipu,” and the “pu’ili.” All three of these instruments are made of some combination of gourds, feathers, and bamboo.

5-year-old Mia and 4-year-old Gracie are not sisters, but they were quick to confirm that they are indeed best friends. “The ones with the blue and pink skirts,” Gracie said when asked what the highlight of the afternoon was for her. “My favorite was that one too. I liked the way they looked,” said Mia. “I liked the way they looked and the way they danced.”

This dance was the “Sophisticated Hula.” Two sarongclad nymphets graced the stage with their long hair, big smiles, and outstretched arms.

For one of the numbers, they dancers called up volunteers. They taught little girls how to “ka’o,” which is the movement of hips from side to side. After the initial lesson, they all joined together for the “Hukilau.”

The fire knife dance was truly incredible. A dancer entered with a 3-foot long pole with fire on one end and used his hand to transfer some fire to the other end. Then, after whirling it around between his legs and up in the air and over his head, he extinguished some of the fire with his mouth. As if it wasn’t hot enough already , this “tane” (man) was, at one point, clenching the flaming stick between the back of his thigh and the back of his calf. Afterwards, there were visible red marks on his skin where the fire had burned him.

While that number may have been one of the most dangerous, the “Haka” was the most intimidating. It actually made one child cry. This Haka is a Maori dance, originating in Aotearoa, New Zealand; there are Hakas in almost every Polynesian culture. The Haka is used both as a greeting dance and also as a preparation for war. Young men, their faces marked with warrior tattoos, strode out into the middle of the auditorium, their eyes wide and their teeth bared in “Pukana,” the face they make at you as a greeting. The impact of their feet repeatedly hitting the ground reverberated through the cement floor of the auditorium while their intimidatingly muscled arms struck their bodies and the ground, leaving red marks on their breasts.

One of the performers, Tupua (the name has been passed down) Seanoa, was injured, so he played in the band instead this time. Seanoa is 17 years old, and said he was raised with dancing, singing, and performances all around him. His father runs the group as of now, following in the footsteps of his father. Seanoa said, “The group has always been a family thing.”

Kelsey Thibdeau, the acting programmer at the Multicultural Center said, “We do children’s events every quarter, but we wanted to make this one reach a broader audience, so I thought Hawaiian dance would be awesome, because it’s something that more than just children would enjoy.”