Samoan dance is the poetry of a people. Traditional choreography comes from place and custom; the dances tell a story of cultural values and celebrate simple events. They are graceful, exuberant, comic, and emblematic of the oldest culture in Polynesia.
Samoa was settled around 3000 years ago -- probably by seafarers from southwest Asia. Islanders are deeply spiritual and attach great meaning to family and tradition. Dance is handed down through generations -- the distinctive solo and group dances are popular tourist attractions in Samoa and in other Pacific Island vacation destinations, such as Hawaii.
Samoan Dance Styles
Traditional dances of Samoa can be found throughout the world, both in native villages and in modern performance venues. Siva is the Samoa word for "dance" and siva is also a name given to a variety of dances, some of them hybrids of old and new culture. The classic dances, that have survived more or less in their original form, tell familiar tales to an indigenous audience and are a spectacle of insistent rhythm and colorful costumes to visitors. From the sacred to the slap-happy, take a tour of some of Samoa's most famous choreography.
Taualuga is venerated as the center of all dances within the culture and is reserved as the grand finale in many entertainment line-ups. It is also used to wrap up wedding receptions and festivals in many regions.
Historically, the taualuga was performed by the son or daughter of a village chief. It is sacred enough to certain groups of Samoans that, traditionally, only virgins performed it. While this is not required today, the majority of performers are still young, unmarried dancers.
The taualuga is always a solo performance accompanied by simple drum beats. Singers may also contribute to the performance. Costuming is elaborate, and tradition requires clothing be sewn carefully by hand, with attention paid to every detail. Costuming may include headbands or headdresses, coconut shell or boar tusk necklaces, and brightly dyed feathers.
Sasa and Fa'ataupati
Synchronization to a drumbeat or the percussive striking of a rolled mat characterizes the sasa, a dance performed by men. Originally, the sasa captured the mundane acts of every day -- climbing trees, finding food, doing chores -- all told primarily with hand movements. More modern influences have slightly altered the sasa, and now it may feature upbeat jumps, kicks, and slaps. It's a real crowd-pleaser and often paired with the fa'ataupati in presentations. The fa'ataupati, or Samoan slap dance, is said to have evolved from the moves involved in slapping away mosquitoes. The dance typically begins with a bit of comic relief in which the men act out their exasperated response to an attacking swarm of mosquitoes and then transition to the traditional dance.
Manu Siva Tau
The manu siva tau has an intimidating name, which goes along nicely with the fact that it is traditionally a war dance. Today, it is used by Samoa's sports teams before each game to energize and inspire the players. Rugby teams are especially fond of using the manu siva tau while on tour, and a World Cup soccer game in the '90s brought with it the composition of an official war chant. While the chant is often sung in traditional Samoan language, it can also be performed in English:
The Manu Samoa, may you succeed in your mission
The Manu Samoa, here I come
There is no other Manu (team) anywhere
Here I come completely prepared
My strength is at its peak
Make way and move aside
Because this Manu is unique
The Manu Samoa
The Manu Samoa
The Manu Samoa reigns from Samoa
The manu siva tau is a perfect example of how ancient Samoan dance is still celebrated by younger, progressive generations.
Samoans started the now-popular craft of fire dancing. It is used both in ceremonial dances and professional dance productions. The original fire knife was a machete with an exposed blade between two wrapped ends. The wrappings are set ablaze, and the dancer performs acrobatic moves while twirling the fire knife.
The ancient Samoan dance involving a knife is called the ailao, which was choreographed to show off the power of a young warrior. However, history shows that even young women performed the ailao, quickly turning it into a performance tradition instead of a war cry.
Fire was added in the 1940s after a Samoan knife dancer was inspired by a Hindu fire eater. Today, adult Samoan dancers use authentic, sharpened blades. Dulled or bladeless knives are not accepted by the Samoan dancing community and are only used to teach and train younger dancers.
Catch a Performance
Today in North America, most dance originating from Samoa is found in traditional competitions. Many are hosted by the Polynesian Cultural Center in states such as Hawaii and Florida. Exhibitions are also held on many of the Pacific Islands, usually during luaus or Polynesian dance performances. Whether you want to watch Samoan dance or learn it yourself, discovering the rich history behind it can enhance your appreciation of the dance steps themselves.