During the 19th century, Christian missionaries condemned dancing as an erotic form of debauchery. In 1819, King Pomare II of Tahiti, legally forbade the practice. At that time, after being banished from public areas, dancing became a clandestine practice for the people.
In 1881, after a long struggle with England and Protestant missionaries, France annexed a large part of what is today French Polynesia. Bastille Day, France’s national holiday celebrated on July 14th, became symbolic for the Polynesians. On this one-day, France allowed sports and dancing in an effort to overcome the Anglo-Saxon influence and to satisfy Polynesians’ taste for festivities. Traditional dance made a resurgence in 1881 after being severely restricted for several decades. Thus the first Tahiti Fête or Tiurai, meaning “July the month of festivities.”
More than just a simple festival, the competition has become the symbol of the Polynesian culture and an iconic event for a people proud of their heritage. In Tahiti, their annual event is called “Heiva i Tahiti.”
These performances highlight the drama of an opera and the distinct imprints of an ancestral tradition. The dances are unique creations, for which the dancers train for nine months or more. Text music, choreography and costumes are based on a historical or legendary theme. In Tahiti, groups compete in different dance and music categories as well as in Tahitian sports.
Outside of Tahiti, the Tahiti Fête of San Jose started in 1990 during the 4th of July weekend. It is considered to be the largest Tahitian competition in the United States. Groups from as far away as Japan, Canada, Mexico as well as all over the United States and Polynesia compete with each other in a friendly and lively atmosphere. The beautiful and spacious San Jose State University Event Center in the Bay Area of California, has been the home of “Tahiti Fête” for 18 years.