Tusiata Avia belongs to the generation of Pasifika women who never learned to dance — or sing, orate, or speak their Pacific languages — like their mothers and grandmothers. But, thanks to Polyfest and Tiktok, her daughter’s generation have found their feet.
I’m sitting in my 16-year-old daughter’s school Pasifika fiafia (celebration) night. Year group by year group, the girls glide on to the stage on bare feet, dressed in puletasi, and dance beautifully. Heartbreakingly beautifully.
They dance like their grandmothers, their great-grandmothers, the taupou and female ancestors in the long lineages that danced before them. The pre-colonial women, the pre-Christian women, the women so far before them, these girls don’t know their names. Neither do their mothers and perhaps even their grandmothers do not know the names of some of these female ancestors.
But these ancestors danced with the same shaped feet, the same tilt of eye, the same slope of forehead.
Our girls echo their female ancestors in ways they cannot imagine. They dance with this DNA buried deep in their bones. They dance in the footsteps of a line of women that snakes back across the Pacific to the islands. All the islands that these girls come from.
Our girls might dance in the footsteps of their female ancestors, but they don’t dance like their mothers. They don’t dance like their mothers because their mothers (women of my generation) don’t dance. We don’t dance because we don’t know how. (At least, we don’t know how to dance properly and with confidence.)
We don’t know how to dance, sing, orate or even speak in our Pacific languages. Our mouths are closed, our hands are still, our bodies are stiff, but our shame — oh, our shame — is wider than the blue Pacific Ocean.
Some of us are ‘afakasi, some of us are “full”. We are the mothers who didn’t learn to dance. We grew up in the 1970s, the ‘80s, maybe even the ‘90s. We grew up with Pālagi mothers who didn’t know how. We grew up with Pasifika mothers working long hours on factory floors. Too tired, without the ever-present support of a live-in extended family of sisters and aunties and mothers and grandmothers, to teach us to dance.
We grew up in a world that told us there was nothing good about being us. There was nothing in our surroundings during those decades in Aotearoa to tell us that being a Pasifika girl was a good thing. That it was something to be proud of, something to celebrate, something that could make us hold our heads high and dance with the pure joy of being Pasifika women.
We grew up in a world that told us we were overstayers. We were coconuts. We were boongas. We were taking people’s jobs. We should go back to where we came from. Never mind that we were born in Christchurch and Auckland and Wellington and Dunedin and everywhere else in these motu. We were ni**ers and blackies and brown bitches. This is what rang in our ears day after day, year after year.
We didn’t see ourselves anywhere good. Not on TV, not in magazines, not on the runways (because we weren’t beautiful). Not in universities or as heads of companies (because we weren’t intelligent). Not in government or corporations (because we weren’t powerful).
In our generation, we didn’t have Polyfest and we didn’t have TikTok.
But my 16-year-old daughter does. She spends the first two months of each year, since she started high school, deeply immersed in Pacific song, dance and the creation of an instant community of Pacific peers as they train together for Polyfest. This happens up and down the country.
Polyfest is a day (or a week, if you live in Auckland) of celebration of Pasifika cultures. It’s a time to come together as young Pasifika people, to feel a sense of belonging and pride in being Sāmoan or Tongan or Cook Island or Tokelauan or Niuean or Fijian. It’s also a time to feel a sense of belonging and pride in being Pasifika.
After this important time for our young people, they are then in danger of being cut adrift. Suddenly, the support and community and joy disappear and they have to make their way through a highly individualistic, labyrinthine set of demands that our western education system demands of them.
Some of our kids can manage this and even thrive. But many — far, far too many — do not. Pasifika kids are massively overrepresented in all the negative statistics: dropout rates, low attendance, low academic achievement, high youth suicide, involvement with the justice system. And poverty poverty poverty. I could begin a whole explanation but I won’t go into the complex reasons for that here.
Alone, our kids will often turn to other ways to connect with their culture and with each other. Alone, our girls will continue to dance. Unlike my generation, they can learn their songs and dances on their own. There are girls all over Aotearoa, girls all over the Pacific, who are on TikTok teaching Pasifika dance.
Last week, all the Pasifika girls from my daughter’s Year 11 gathered in our sitting room, phones in hand, to learn a group dance for their fiafia performance. The dance items performed by most of the girls at the fiafia were choreographed by other Pasifika girls on TikTok.
It’s not only the elders or the dance teachers who hold the knowledge now. Our girls have become teachers. They teach each other. They use each other as guides. They follow each other like stars. They follow each other criss-crossing the Pacific, using their mobile phones like vaka, their ancestors looking on, as they teach each other to move seamlessly from Sāmoan taualuga to Tongan tau’olunga to the Cook Island ‘ura.
The ancestors look on and laugh when our girls throw in a nightclub Macarena on the back of a Fijian meke. Nothing is static, least of all dance.
Our clever, talented, strong girls, in this social media age, have managed something their mothers could not. Me and my cousins sit in the fiafia or other Pasifika events — the weddings and 21st birthday parties and community celebrations — and when our dancers take the floor, we’re embarrassed. We’re not sure when to join, where to stand, what to do with our hands and how to move our feet properly.
Even if we’ve danced before (maybe back when we were at uni or at youth group) we are shy now as middle-aged women. There is a chorus of voices in our heads shouting at us down the tunnel of years past. They are laughing at us, pointing at our hands held incorrectly and our hips that can’t catch the right rhythm. So, we stay in our seats and hand the $10 notes to our sons or nieces to tuck into the necklines of our beautiful dancing daughters.
Our girls, though. They’ve practised in their bedrooms with Tik Tok. They’ve practised at lunchtime with their friends. They’ve been practising since Year 9 at Polyfest (or even earlier) and their bodies know what to do.
Maybe, like us, they still don’t speak the language of their grandparents or know how to weave a mat or make tapa. But, when they dance, their grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and all the female tupuaga before them, stand beside them and dance too.
Tusiata Avia (Sāmoan-Pālagi) is an acclaimed poet, performer and children’s writer who lives in Christchurch. Her poetry collection The Savage Coloniser Book won the 2021 Ockham book award for poetry. It was also staged as a theatre show, like her previous poetry collections Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (2004, which was staged around the world and most recently Off-Broadway, winning the 2019 outstanding production of the year), Bloodclot (2009) and the Ockham-shortlisted Fale Aitu / Spirit House (2016). In 2020, Tusiata was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to poetry and the arts.
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