In a dance studio tucked inside a building next to New York City Hall, Tamara Bejar Hernandez counts to the beat of a traditional Tahitian dance song as a group of women shake their hips from left to right and gracefully slides their hands in the air and lowers their arms.
“One, two, three,” shouts Hernandez, founder of Pacific Island dance group Lei Pasifika. “Pretend to smell flowers.”
They rehearse the choreography of the song “Te Pua No’a No’a”, which tells the story of the flowers spread on the island of Tahiti. It’s the same dance I learned a few weeks ago when I decided to join Lei Pasifika’s weekly Tahitian dance classes.
But this Saturday morning, the ladies are gearing up for Lū’au season, a typically bustling big party featuring live island music and cultural performances from Hawai’i and the greater Polynesia region. Hernandez says the group is booked with performances for the next two months.
“Fa’Arapu,” she shouts on the song’s chorus, meaning spinning the hips in quick circles.
It’s not the public performances that bring the ladies to this dank Manhattan studio every week. Many tell me it’s their way of staying connected to the Pacific. Some, like me, moved to the city from the Pacific Islands, either from the Marshall Islands or Hawaii, while others, like Hernandez, grew up around a fairly large Pacific Islander community elsewhere.
“They come even though they’ve never danced before, but because their parents or family danced before them and they have that connection,” Hernandez tells me. “It makes them less nostalgic.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders were the fastest growing ethnic population in the United States from 2020 to 2021. The Oceania region – made up of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia – home to around 10 million people, many of whom have migrated from their home islands to the Americas for economic reasons, climate change and better education.
But once in the Americas, there is always a sense of yearning for native culture and traditions. And in major cities with a large Pacific Islander presence, such as New York, Portland, Oregon, and San Diego, many American-born Pacific Islanders as well as transplants keep their culture alive through dance.
“The first question I always ask when someone asks to join my ‘hui’, which means group, is what’s your connection?” Hernandez said. “What brings you here?”
“Fix your fingers,” Hernandez tells his dancers, noting that every movement of the hands and hips should tell a story.
“‘Aparima”, which means hand movement, is a dance style where the hands are the storytellers. When the song they are rehearsing mentions “’āina” or earth, for example, the dancers elegantly raise their hands, palms down, to form an earth in front of them.
Vise Mann, cultural arts president of the Sacramento, Calif.-based Pacific Islander group called To’utupu ‘oe’ Otu Felenite Association (TOFA), or Youth Leaders of the Pacific, says dance is a form of narration. Mann, who is Samoan and born in California, teaches cultural dances for TOFA in the Sacramento area.
It’s a way for Pacific Islanders, especially young people, to “find themselves” and connect with their ethnic identity and cultures, she notes.
“The dances are an expression of gratitude, love, family, the story behind what our ancestors faced and all they did to get where we need to be,” Mann tells me. “It’s a beautiful thing when you see it happen.”
In the centuries since the colonization of the Pacific region, Pacific Islanders, including the Chamoru, Samoans, Maori, Tongans, Native Hawaiians and many others, have lived largely island lives, separated from the rest of the world by a vast ocean.
This distance taught them to live naturally in harmony with land and sea. Those of us who grew up on the islands have always heard stories of their long journey, during which they danced and sang. They jumped from one island to another in canoes and only used the stars, the currents and the wind to guide them.
Lisa Hafoka, who is Tongan, took over as President of TOFA in 2022 after the death of her mother, TOFA founder Catherine ‘Ofa Mann. His family moved to Sacramento from New Zealand in the 1990s and established the organization in 2000 to break down the language and cultural barriers that many Pacific Islanders, especially young people, faced in the United States in the 1990s. ‘era.
“When many of our young Pacific Islanders were in trouble with the law, there needed to be a non-profit Pacific Islander organization that could be like a moderator or go-between for these young people and provide them with a resource to do better in the community,” Hafoka told CNN.
While TOFA provided resources such as counseling and scholarships to young Pacific Islanders, “there is no Pacific Island organization without a cultural play, a dance play, or cultural arts,” says Hafoka.
Now the group has become a regular presence at the California State Fair in Sacramento, with over 100 dancers performing traditional dances on stage. Mann says they’ve noticed a growing number of Pacific Islanders, including those who aren’t native Pacific Islanders but grew up on the islands, wanting to learn more about the culture and participate in dances.
Dancing has become an emotional and cultural outlet for many young children, Hafoka says.
“We have found that Pacific Island children, when they come together, bond,” she adds. “When they dance together it’s stronger and they enjoy each other’s company, and they bring others along.”
Being born and raised in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, a US territory just north of Guam, I sometimes feel homesick after moving to the US mainland.
Although I am not a native of the Pacific Islands, I grew up in a close-knit community of Micronesians in Saipan. I dance their dance, sing their songs and eat their food, so when I am homesick I turn to dancing, listening to island music and cooking Chamoru food.
Moving to Portland, Oregon, for college, I was thrilled to discover that my college had clubs in Hawaii and Guam that put on cultural performances highlighting traditional dances like the hula and haka, which I participated. When I moved even further to New York, where the Pacific Islander population is sparse, it became much more difficult to find a community.
Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders make up just 0.18 percent of New York’s total population, according to the US Census Bureau. Washington, California, and Texas are among the top states, besides Hawaii, with the largest NHPI population.
“The Pacific Island community in New York isn’t that big, so it feels like a safe space where I can connect with the culture and feel at home,” my friend Liza Atalig, who is CHamoru and has also moved from Saipan to New York, he tells me.
She was the one who introduced me to Lei Pasifika’s dance classes. And it wasn’t until early this year that I decided I wanted to return to dancing that I joined and met other dancers who felt the same way.
Kathleen Malpica, 34, another dancer with Lei Pasifika, was born and raised in Hawaii and grew up dancing hula and Tahitian. Like me, she also moved to Oregon before moving to New York, where she researched the same community and eventually met Hernandez and Lei Pasifika.
The best part is “knowing that the dance and the music and their art are so ingrained in the culture and that you dance with a lot of intention and authenticity,” says Malpica. “And the community is the reason I keep dancing, because the brotherhood is really amazing.”
The need for community was why Hernandez started the band in the first place. “I started meeting other girls who looked like me,” she tells me.
Moving from Florida, where she grew up in a large Tongan community, to New York, she says, was a big culture shock for her. But one evening, in a tiki bar in town, she meets someone from Guam who asks her if she wants to teach traditional Polynesian dances.
Since 2008, Lei Pasifika has grown from a small group of girls dancing in New York City parks to a full-service dance studio, where dancers reserve their spot on a first-come, first-served basis.
“It becomes your family, it becomes personal, it becomes part of your daily life,” Hernandez says. “Even though I don’t see the girls every day, I think of them every day.”