“Not a coming out, but a becoming of.” Iatua Felagai Taito’s performance for his master’s in dance studies, at Fale Pasifika, University of Auckland, in November 2022. (Photo supplied)

As a youngster, Iatua Felagai Taito struggled with his identity as a queer Sāmoan male. For a long time, he wasn’t sure how to be himself around his family and community. Here, he talks to Teuila Fuatai about how he found his way, and himself, through the practice of siva Sāmoa, the traditional Sāmoan dance.

 

I come from a strong Sāmoan Christian background. My father was a lay preacher in our church, and my mother died when I was 11. I’m the youngest of nine, with seven older brothers and one older sister.

I grew up in West Auckland, and there were a lot of things we just didn’t talk about.

I always knew I was different, but it took a long time for me to understand my identity as a queer Sāmoan person. Often, I’d question my own behaviour and the way I was. Why am I more flamboyant than other boys? Why am I feminine? Why can’t I be a normal person, just like all the other males?

Homosexuality wasn’t really mentioned at church or at home, but we all knew how an “ideal male” looked and behaved. To be a Sāmoan male, you had to be masculine and strong, and not show any hint of femininity. I didn’t see any room to be different, to be my authentic self. I also didn’t know how to talk about how I felt — and I wasn’t sure who I’d speak to, anyway.

Iatua was especially close to his mum Anita, who died when he was 11 — a couple of years after this photo was taken. (Photo supplied)

When my beautiful mum Anita died, I was devastated. Mum was only 38 when she passed away suddenly in her sleep. The two of us were really close. We both loved watching Filipino dramas, but our favourite programme was the Korean drama Stairway to Heaven. While my brothers played games and my dad read the Bible, we’d be in front of the TV watching our programmes. We also went to Sāmoa together a lot, and as a kid at church, I preferred to sit with her rather than with other children.

Mum’s death was a tough time for all of us, and Dad really held our family together. As kids, we didn’t want him to be sad, and make things even harder. So everyone was quite strong. I also knew that, of all my siblings, Mum had worried the most about me and how I’d survive without her. I think she knew I was still working out how to express myself fully and honestly.

I think that’s why dance, and my siva Sāmoa practice, eventually became so important in my life.

One of the places I’d always felt comfortable, even from a young age, was performing. I wanted to study acting or drama, and find work in that field. So, after high school, I went to PIPA, the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts (which has since closed down).

At PIPA, we had to do a dance solo. I chose to do it about my mum and composed a piece which combined siva Sāmoa and contemporary dance movements. At the time, I didn’t know that dance was a way I could express the things that I struggled to say out loud. As I put it together, I drew on all these different feelings and put them into the performance.

In the end, the solo was a way of saying to Mum that I was okay, and that our family was okay. It embodied my own journey of finding who I was through the performing arts. It was also the first step to understanding my own identity through dance.

Until then, I’d only ever found dance performative and fun. I’d been part of my high school’s Sāmoan group at Polyfest, and performed in other group and community settings. But none of those experiences had given me the personal and spiritual connection that I’d found in my dance solo.

Iatua with his nephew Deandre and his dad Autagavaia Saofa’amau Tuiosalele Fautua Felagai. At home in Auckland, 2022. (Photo supplied)

Later that year, I put another dance solo together, this time for a performance at church. It was an end-of-year celebration event, and each family from our congregation had to perform. None of my siblings wanted to do it, and because I’m the youngest, it fell to me to do something.

I was really scared. I wasn’t sure how I should approach it. I could do a typical siva Sāmoa performance, where my movements would conform to the dominant notions of gender and masculinity. Usually, men and women have specific roles in siva Sāmoa performances which showcase stereotypical attributes associated with each gender: women are graceful and always smiling, while men move with a lot of vigour and athleticism.

Or I could perform a siva that was unique to me and showed who I really was — one that reflected how I moved, walked and felt. It would be a first for me, and my family and congregation.

Of course, I’d seen fa’afāfine in siva Sāmoa performances before. When people think of fa’afāfine — males who have feminine traits: literally, like or in the manner of a woman — they’re portrayed as jokers who are overly flamboyant and performative on stage. And certainly, all those things are part of being fa’afāfine, but I wanted to do a siva that showed the different parts of who I was as a queer Sāmoan person — beyond the stereotypical portrayal of fa’afāfine.

When it was my turn to perform, I remember how scared I was stepping out in front of everyone. The faife‘au (church minister) and his wife were in the front row, and my dad was around the back somewhere.

My siva was a mix of masculine and feminine dance elements. I began by performing the fa’ataupati (the male slap dance) with a bamboo stick. It was soft and energetic at the same time, and then transitioned into a more authentic, graceful siva Sāmoa style. Each of the elements in the piece reflected a different part of me. In three-and-a-half minutes, I showed everyone in the church, including my family, who I really was: a queer Sāmoan Christian.

When I finished, everyone was clapping and cheering. I also remember how proud my dad was. I heard him joke with people that he’d been watching me practise for the performance, even though he’d never seen me do that siva before.

I think that’s when everything changed.

I know that if I’d come to a church gathering and talked about being queer, and discussed topics like same-sex marriage, I would have had a very visceral and aggressive reaction. I would’ve been shut down and reminded of my place. But through my siva Sāmoa performance, I was able to authentically express who I was. More than that, everyone seemed to react positively to it — and to me.

It really shifted how I thought about dance and siva Sāmoa. The next year, I started my drama and Pacific studies degree at the University of Auckland. I also started performing siva Sāmoa at community events.

Iatua with his brothers at their dad’s 70th birthday celebration. Back row, from left: Brian, Kuluva, Christopher. Second row: Elisha, Canon, Agafili, Fautua, Iatua. Front: Autagavaia Saofa’amau Tuiosalele Fautua Felagai. (Photo supplied)

I learned about different types of siva Sāmoa and dance traditions from other Pacific cultures. I researched the history of our dance practices, and how they changed with the arrival of the missionaries and the spread of Christianity. Like a lot of our traditional knowledge bases, you could track the influence of missionaries and Christianity through the changes in different siva Sāmoa.

As a cultural practice, siva Sāmoa had always been about performing with the community and to each other, and embodying our culture and the different ways we lived. The influence of missionaries changed that. Generally, there was more emphasis on synchronisation, and on movement patterns and actions that looked good to the western eye. Some dances were altered, while others were lost — deemed no longer necessary to the way of life missionaries brought to Sāmoa. Overall, Christianity and the missionaries changed the way we viewed dance.

That was particularly evident for dances related to sexuality. For example, we used to perform a siva called tauatāne. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of information around the tauatāne because, after the missionaries arrived, it was prohibited.

However, we do know that it was a dance performed by males, and that it was openly sensual and sexual. Because of that, it was deemed to be immoral. The literature also shows that it came to be associated with male homosexuality; the term tauatāne was once used to refer to gay men. Eventually, tauatāne stopped being used in our language altogether, and fa’afāfine became common.

Personally, I don’t identify as fa’afāfine. When I think of fa’afāfine, it’s a man who is in the manner of a woman. In a modern western context, a lot of Sāmoan fa’afāfine would also be considered transgender women. Over the years, I’ve been called fa’afāfine as an insult. That kind of derogatory and harmful behaviour needs to be addressed in our communities.

When I learned about the tauatāne siva, and what it used to symbolise, I found a way to describe myself in my own culture. In Sāmoa, before the arrival of Christianity, the phrase tauatāne was associated with bravery. Broken down,  tauatāne literally means brave husband, or brave warrior husband. Tauatāne also wasn’t a fixed term or dance. It was queer and fluid and strong, which are all things I relate to.

The Felagai Taito family gathered to celebrate Iatua’s Bachelor of Arts graduation from the University of Auckland in 2020.  (Photo supplied)

I’m now in the first year of my PhD, delving into how different dances embodied some of our Indigenous knowledge bases and practices. I’ve had to look critically at the impacts of Christianity and colonisation on our Indigenous dance practices, and understand what that means today. For me, it’s been about learning and acknowledging that history and damage, while keeping faith with who I am and my culture.

Through siva Sāmoa, I’ve come to understand my identity as a queer Sāmoan, a tauatāne. I’ve also been able to communicate that to my family and community.

I think for Dad, the journey of understanding who I am is ongoing. Even though he doesn’t always get it, he’s one of my biggest supporters. We pray together every morning. Whenever I have to do long hours at uni, Dad will always try to help by dropping me off. Without his guidance and support, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

If Mum was around, I think she’d be so mimika (excited) about everything I’m doing. Dad and I have talked about how proud she’d be of me and the fact that I have a full scholarship for my PhD. I really miss her. She had such high expectations for us as kids and that’s been a big driving force in my studies and journey. I’m the first in my family to do a PhD. I know that would’ve made her smile.

And she’d be so proud of how I’m living my truth, and being my authentic self. 

 

Iatua Felagai Taito is a PhD student in dance studies and a graduate teaching assistant for dance studies and Pacific studies at the University of Auckland. He was born and raised in West Auckland, and has roots in the villages of Lano and Sala’ilua in Savai‘i, Sāmoa. Iatua is a Pasifika editor for Craccum, and an actor, published author, dancer, and poet. He’s also an advocate for Pacific Rainbow communities in Aotearoa.

As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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