Cook Island Dancing... It’s Not As Easy As You Might Think
Since 2020 has put a halt to my travels for the foreseeable future, I thought that it would be a good time to revisit (see what I did there) some of my previous pilgrimages.
During my time in New Zealand, I had the opportunity to take a Cook Island dance classes. When I travel I like to experience things that are unique to the culture that I'm visiting. That includes learning about the indigenous people and the history of the destination.
While in New Zealand most of my experience with indigenous culture was that of the Maori, who are the indigenous people of New Zealand. The Cook Islands is a Polynesian nation located in the South Pacific. It has a free association with New Zealand. New Zealand handles its defense and diplomatic affairs and provides currency, and Cook Islanders are considered New Zealand citizens.
New Zealand handles its defense and diplomatic affairs and provides currency, and Cook Islanders are considered New Zealand citizens.
How did I find the class?
One day, while commuting home, I made conversation with a colleague headed in the same direction. She mentioned that she was going to a class for Cook Island dancing. She suggested that I go. The hall where the dance class was held was in my neighborhood, so in the spirit of adventure, I ran home to grab work out gear. It’s so easy to say no to new experiences or things. I’m so glad that I took the chance as the class was one of my favorite experiences from New Zealand.
I'm so glad that I took that chance one random afternoon, the Cook Islands are a Pacific nation in the Polynesia region. It is an independent nation however it does have free association with New Zealand. New Zealand and provides the defense for the nation. New Zealand also advocates on Cook Islands’ behalf regarding foreign affairs. Cook Islands does have it’s own currency but the New Zealand dollar is also accepted. Cook islanders do have New Zealand citizenship, but not all Zealanders are Cook Islanders. The dance classes were from Inano Dance.
And it was taught by to home. The style of dances, were called Ura Kuki Airani. There were drummers there. They were Pacific Islander men who were trained in the tradition of drumming.
We danced in the pāreu, which is a sarong type covering to be worn low in the hips. The instructor, Te Hau told us the lower the better but where she wanted the placement, I was in jeopardy of having ‘Plumber back’. So I placed it just a smidge higher than instructed. Watching this video back I regret that choice because you can definitely see the difference from wearing it low on the hip versus wearing it high, where it felt comfortable. Now there was an instance where they brought more elaborate skirts and the tradition of dressing up. The hula skirt is called the Kiri'au skirt. The hip belt is called a titi.
The position is to keep it as so low is to accentuate the movements of the dances. The class that I was taking it was just learning the dance moves. For those who are more advanced, there was a class with actual choreography. In that class you can learn the dances from Cook Islands and Tahiti.
I'm not averse to dancing. Despite what my family has to say— I have rhythm (I swear I do), but you know, when people jump for joy and do a little jig because they're happy? My first inclination isn't to dance. Being from South Florida, I’m used to hip focus movements and dances so I thought I knew what to expect. You know what they say about assuming… The methods of Polynesian dancing was different. I had to let go of what I knew about dancing and really listen to the instructor about how to do this style of dancing.
Prior to taking this dance class, my idea of Polynesian dancing was almost exclusively the hula from Hawaii, which is very slow, rhythmic and almost calm and I knew that it had meaning even though I didn't know what that meaning was. So we made that to this class. I was not ready. There was nothing slow about it. It was very high paced, fast-paced, high-intensity dance classes, and this was just learning the moves.
How do I explain…
Disclaimer: I say ’South Florida Dancing’ as all-encompassing because South Florida is so multicultural I’ve been exposed to so many styles of dance—there’s bachata, bopping and so much more. more.
The style of dancing I’m used to puts a lot of emphasis on the balls of your feet that’s how you will move. In listening to the instructor, in order to do the move properly, my feet needed to be planted and the emphasis was put on the heel of the foot.
Another difference is when moving your hips, the direction in which you are swinging them is different as well. All hip-swinging is not made equal. I can best explain this by saying if you wanted to dance South Florida/hip-hop style, you would circle your hips as if to create an invisible circle on the wall behind you. With the Polynesian style dancing, it was better to have a planted foot, the focus was putting the pressure on the heels of the foot. And the circle you were drawing with your hips was on the floor instead of the wall behind you. Though the premise is the same, it’s a very different movement.
All hip-swinging is not made equal.
I was learning the Ura Kuki Airani style of Polynesian dancing. I have done dance exercise classes before. It's very good cardio and actually toning as well, because it takes a lot of strength in your muscles to do some of the movements, especially this one move called 'crawling', which the Te Hau loved. But, um, the way my knees are set up… give me a few months then come back to me.
I really admired the camaraderie in the class. Everyone was so supportive of each other and it felt like such a safe space. Whether you were the strongest dancer or not, you were still welcome because at the end of the day, like we're all here to share a common interest. We were all able to participate at different levels. The youngest in the class was about 14, and I’m not sure who the oldest was (it’s never polite to ask) but I will say that even the instructor's mom was even an active participant.
I will say it is a full-body workout. It activates your leg muscles and even your core muscles are necessary. Posture is a big part of the dancing. As you get into some of the more advanced movements your arms, and our and your shoulders are definitely worked out as well.
So if you're looking for a full-body workout that is entertaining, I highly encourage you to check out this Cook Island/ Tahitian dancing. It’s a very interactive way to learn about the cultural component as well.
In Cook Island Culture the dances are done by men and women. There are even several styles of dancing. In our class, however, it was only women so I would be interested in learning more about how men participate. I know that some men are trained on the drums. Our class actually had live drummers so that was also especially cool.
In addition to the drummers, the instructor also had dance mixes which had quite a few Latin songs. Which was very reminiscent of Florida. Being familiar with the music, was helpful for me to keep to the beat, but I definitely had to focus to make sure that I wasn't slipping into the Floridian style of dancing.
With the progression of Western culture and globalization, there is literally a whole world to discover. I am eager to continue to explore different indigenous cultures as I continue to travel and learn different histories from those who are so deeply connected to it. One of the reasons I love to travel is I have the opportunity to learn firsthand how different cultures look, live and believe.
I highly encourage you to research on your own, and to explore these concepts and these different cultures. Even within the women's dances there are different types of dancers that you do those two dances of action. There's the dances to tell stories. There's even dances to seduce. The dancing that we did in my class never seemed sexualized despite all the hip movement. It was just dancing.
I only took the class for about a month before my visa expired and I had to leave for Australia, so I'm definitely not an expert on anything Pacific Islander. There is so much more that I have to learn. There are dances that the men do, I haven’t yet had any Cook Islander cuisine… It’s a lot. I just hope that my description has piqued your interest in Polynesian cultures.
Until Next Time,