With a history that dates back to 3,000 B.C., Tonga is governed by King Tupou VI, consists of 171 islands, and is over 99% Christian today. It has a rich culture and history, where women ‘eiki to men; that is, women outrank men. Dance has been a fundamental element of that culture. “Dance in Tonga was, and in many ways still is, an important functional aspect of culture, inextricably interwoven with social organization, history and folklore, and is preeminently a village affair” (Kaeppler, 1970, p. 266). In this paper, I will explore Tonga’s rich environment, culture, and history and the changes that took place after Westerners arrived. I will connect dance, their role, corresponding changes, and how Tonga has continued to keep their rich traditions.
Encyclopedia.com (2018) shows that Tonga, or the Kingdom of Tonga, is located in the South Pacific and covers an area of about 750 square kilometers; its capital city of Nuku’alofa can be found on the island of Tongatapu. Its flora is reminiscent of the South Pacific with coconut groves and banana plantations. As Tonga is an island nation, its fauna consists of several bat species and reptiles, eighty-three migrating bird species, including maroon shining parrots and Crimson-crowned fruit doves, and 1200+ marine species, including dolphins, whales and 25+ variants of butterfly fish. This ecology is what Tongans call their fonua. Fonua is “… the embodiment of both local territorial belonging (historicized rendering) and national self-identification (a contemporary rendering), simultaneously connecting Tongans to a mythological past and linking them with a globalised present” (Francis, 2006, p. 345). It represents “a powerful social construction, accommodating assertions of national unity (one people, one place) and a celebration of the diverse histories and distinct territories (many people, many places) that today comprise the Kingdom of Tonga” (Francis, 2006, p. 360). Fonua is regularly referenced in the dance and poetry of the peoples of Tonga. In Lau Langi, a version of the ancient Tongan dance ‘Otuhaka, the Tongans “reflect the concept of fonua in the employment of images that ultimately associate people with earth, with land, with place” (Francis, 2006, p. 348).
Tongans were original descendants of Samoa, about 900 kilometers northeast. Apart from the original work by author Elizabeth Wood-Ellem, there had been little written historical evidence. Until the arrival of the first Westerners in the 1600s, the chiefs and Kau-matapule, or attendants, kept the histories and traditions alive. “Certain individuals are especially well informed, and they may be referred to as tangata ‘ilo (or fefine ‘ilo if a woman) meaning ‘one who knows’” (Latukefu, 1968, p.135). Fortunately, “… oral traditions after being carefully and critically submitted to the canons of historical and anthropological criticism, have helped tremendously to make the history of Tonga more alive, more interesting, exciting, and I hope, more accurate” (Latukefu, 1968, p. 143). Through poetry and dance, Tonga continues this oral history.
Tonga went through years of civil wars among various chiefs. In the 15th century, the Tu’i Tonga, or chief of Tonga, created a model with working and non-working chiefs; that is, the Tu’i Tonga would be the chief, while another would be responsible for day-to-day management. This second chief was called Tu’i Ha’atakalaua. The Tu’i Ha’atakalua, in turn, replicated the same practice with his younger brothers and sons. This led to a third chief, who was called the Tu’i Kanokupolu. Regrettably, this disjointed infrastructure resulted in a power struggle until there was one remaining king, the Tu’i Kanokupolu. This king was King George Taufa’ahau Tupou I. King George successfully governed for sixty years. In that period, having befriended a missionary, Shirley Baker, the Tu’i Kanokupolu was baptized. This friendship turned out to be serendipitous as it helped the King prevent a European occupation. As such, Tonga remained independent and flourished without losing its identity and traditions. These civil wars and the resulting democracy of Tonga are central references in its war dances.
Moreover, Tongan society has always had highly complex social structures or hierarchies. “Ancient Tonga was known for its complex family lineages and sophisticated political rule” (Matsuda, 2012, p. 27). In fact, “all interpersonal relationships in the island kingdom are governed by principles of rank, material culture and language reflect this ranking” (Kaeppler, 1971, p. 174). Tongan society consists of three distinct ranks, mainly king, or Tu’i Tonga, chiefly people, and common people, or commoners. One hierarchical structure “orders titles within a system of titles” (Biersack, 1991, p. 236). It sets chiefs at the top with commoners at the bottom. This is the structure that is also frequently reinforced in Tongan dance, poetry, and folklore.
However, the most important social hierarchy is that of eiki’ and tu’a. “In Tonga a sister is ‘eiki to her brother, who is tu’a. This suggests not that she has superior authority over him but that, as sister, she has precedence over him in terms of hierarchical values and spiritual potency” (James, 1992, p. 84). Within this hierarchy, women are “descendants of Pulotu, while the men they rely on for support and protection are from Maama descendants of a worm. Men are from Maama, and women are from Pulotu” (Filihia, 2001, p. 381). Because Pulotu came before everything and was the source of life and death, it was “chiefly.” As women came from Pulotu, “women are chiefly” (Filihia, 2001, p. 381). One’s personal rank in society is, hence, established. In short, “women have the capacity to either build up life or destroy it” (Filihia, 2001, p. 386). This eiki’ and tu’a relationship is most observable during a funeral. “Women play a prominent part in the rites of mourning, taking the lead in laments over the body and usually occupying the position of fahu” (Filihia, 2001, 384). Bott (1981) observed:
“Relatives who are higher in rank than the dead person sit in the house, are fed and receive koloa. One of them is appointed as the fahu of the ceremony, meaning the one of the highest rank. Relatives who rank lower than the corpse bring food, stay outside and work in the kitchen; they are called liongi. Older siblings of the same sex and their children are neither liongi nor fahu. Grandparents and grandchildren similarly are neither liongi nor fahu.” (p. 18)
Tongan dances were, not surprisingly, an essential part of these funerals as they detailed the sorrow of the family and the offerings to the Tongan gods or God. “Drinking and dancing sometimes relieved the tedium of their mourning, one of the dances commonly engaged in being the kawole” (MacAlpine, 1906, p.261).
These multifaceted interrelationships also dictate Tongan speech and the poetry incorporated in their dances. For example, your speech patterns, and, hence, the poetry and dance movements, change when you speak to or about the king, or Lea fakatu’i, to or about chiefly people, and so on. But, a commoner may never know the required language to speak with the king, or chiefly people, since “Tongan culture does not normally provide opportunities for the bulk of commoner Tongans to interact with the monarch or chiefs … the honorifics are not part of all Tongans’ everyday use in the way that is true, for example, of Japanese honorification” (Taumoefolau, 2012, p. 328). There is even a way to speak in a self-derogatory way to convey respect to the listener. “In Tongan, speaking in the self-derogatory way (WAT 4) has the purpose of expressing respect for the addressee, or develop rapport and solidarity with a high-ranking addressee” (Taumoefolau, 2012, p. 332).
Another continuing practice of Tongans is religion. Religion has been a significant part of Tongan society pre- and post-arrival of Westerners. In the 1700s, Tongan society was introduced to Christian and Wesleyan missionaries. These missionaries, at first, did not convert any Tongans. By 1833, the Wesleyans proudly converted all three rulers of the major Tongan islands and established an independent Free Church of Tonga. By the 1850s, paganism disappeared. “Tonga was transformed from a polytheistic traditional religion into a unified Christian nation…where Christianity has been the most powerful Western influence” (Shumway, 1981, p. 467). Thereafter, “Christianity and formal schooling had profound effects on Tongan life, and dance was no exception. Methodism became almost a State Religion, and the old dances were considered ‘heathen’ and not in keeping with the precepts of Christianity” (Kaeppler, 1970, p. 266).
Nonetheless, “since at least the 19th century, dance and music have emerged as potent symbols of identity for ethnic groups and nations worldwide” (Reed, 1998, p.510). As in most Polynesian societies, Tongan dances are central to various ceremonies and festivities and tell stories and folklore through movement. Waterman wrote, “dance serves as a force for social cohesion and as a means to achieve the cultural continuity without which no human community can persist” (as cited in Kaeppler, 1967, p. 1).
The Punake choreographs those dances. He/she “excels as a pulotu fa’u (composer of poems or ta’anga), a pulotu hiva/pulotu fasi (creator of melodies) and a pulotu haka (creator of dance or a choreographer)” (“The Art of Punake”). Like other parts of the world, Tonga faces ecological issues, such as pollution, overfishing, rising sea levels and other ecological issues. As a socio-ecologist, the Punake incorporates the flora and fauna in the choreography and tries to inspire everyone to protect the fonua. The Punake “feels a great responsibility for the end product, the main performance, because he wishes to do honor to those to whom it is dedicated and also to meet the expectations of a discerning audience” (Shumway, 1981, p. 468). Tongans declare, “… poetry, dance and mythic tales provide useful insights into the order and logic…” (Francis, 2006, p. 347) of the universe.
Tongan society has created dance movements quite unlike those of the Western world. “Tongan dances allude to poetry, create beauty or both” (Kaeppler, 2003, p. 156). In Tonga, dance is called faiva with haka. That is, “first, that it requires skill; second, that the most important part of the body in Tongan dance is hands; and the third, that Tongan dance is performed in conjunction with singing … and … how the movements interpret the poetry is an important aspect of the aesthetic” (Kaeppler, 1971a, p. 176). Kaeppler (1971a, p. 177) stresses that to understand Tongan dance, the viewer must consider four elements: craftsmanship, appropriateness, skill, or feeling of the performance, and the inner state of the viewer or spectator. The spectator can then experience mafana, that is, “to be able to find something familiar in something new, or in the recognition of a performance that is so well done that the onlooker actually participates vicariously” Kaeppler (1971a, p. 177).
Tonga has two basic types of dance: “one which has movement as its main element, and one which accompanies poetry” (Kaeppler, 1967, p. 160). Unlike Western music, Tongan music is secondary. “As in most Polynesian music, it is not the melody that is important, but rather the sentiment expressed by the poetry” (Kaeppler, 1970, p. 275). The soft movements of female dancers contrast noticeably against the physical, brute movements of the male dancers. Tongan dances consist of kinemes, morphokines, and motifs. There are about 46 dance kinemes, or significant body movements, using head, legs, or arms. “Morphokines combine kinemes – whether position or motion – into flowing movements that have a definite beginning and end” (Kaeppler, 1972, p.187). Morphokines are actually a mix of kinemes, and nima morphokines, which involve the hand and lower arm, while motifs are “a frequently occurring combination of morphokines that forms a short entity in itself” (Kaeppler, 1972, p. 202).
“Tongans themselves use the word fakafonoa (lit. ‘pertaining to the land’) or ‘traditional’ to refer both to older categories of song and dance and to newer ones which contain demonstrable European elements” (McLean, 1999, p. 133). There are three ancient dance forms, specifically me’etu’upaki, ula and ‘otuhaka. “In the early literature of Tonga, we have descriptions of four dance types: 1) the me’etu’upaki, a men’s standing dance in which paddles (paki) are used; 2) the me’elaufola, a group dance done by either men or women; 3) the ‘otuhaka, a sitting group dance; and 4) ula, a standing dance performed by young women” (Kaeppler, 1970, p.267).
As with other Polynesian societies, Tonga has an oral storytelling tradition worshipping or honoring the various Tongan gods and demigods through poetry and dance. These stories troubled the arriving Westerners. After all, “regulating purity and authenticity in folkloric dance in a patriarchal and protective mode is a common feature of state and elite interventions, often indexing notions of a defensive culture under siege” (Reed, 1998, p. 512). Surprisingly, the me’etu’upaki remained untouched and has “remained essentially the same for more than 300 years” (Kaeppler, 1991, p. 356) in movement, poetry, and music. The me’etu’upaki is a military, or war, dance. Performed by men arranged in several rows and using a paki, which resembles a small paddle, “the me’etu’upaki is a group dance which has completely preset choreography from beginning to end, down to the smallest detail” (Kaeppler, 1991, p. 348). A group of singers and drummers, called lolongo, accompany the dancers. The movements are graceful, and there is no improvisation. In function, though, the dance has “changed – from formal dance type to a conspicuous display of separating the descendants of the sacred line of chiefs from the rest of the society” (Kaeppler, 1970, p. 269). Similar to me’etu’upaki, kailao is another traditional war dance with no accompanying song. A favorite of tourists, the dance follows the shouts of a leader and the persistent rhythm of the drums. The kailao has fortunately remained intact.
In contrast, the me’elaufola has altogether disappeared from present-day society, at least by name. Kaeppler (1970, p. 270) contends that me’elaufola quite closely resembles lakalaka. There are some differences: the me’elaufola speaks to the Tongan gods, while the lakalaka pays respect to God, the King, and his nobles. The other noticeable difference is that men and women perform together in the me’elaufola, while separately in the lakalaka. The harmony of the lakalaka is also evocative of Western music. Just like other traditions, the lakalaka “abounds in symbolism and extended meanings, sometimes purposely made obscure to avoid falling into cliche or perhaps to communicate something to be understood only by the poet” (Shumway, 1981, p. 469).
In one version of the lakalaka, the poetry introduces “the subject (Stanza 1), the fakatapu or stylized speech prelude has been given (Stanza 2), the dancers have introduced themselves and the story they are going to tell (Stanza 3), and the main character has been introduced and his genealogy and background told (Stanza 4 and 5)” (Kaeppler, 1967, p. 164). And so on. A striking spectacle, “a lakalaka is performed by ‘all’ the adult men and women of the village serving as a force of communal arousal and pride” (Kaeppler, 1971a, p. 178). Like that of a me’etu’upaki, its role has changed as well: a Me’elaufola was originally an informal dance, while the lakalaka is now a formal dance.
Likewise, the ma’ulu’ulu dance seems to have come from the ‘otuhaka. Accompanied by polyphonic singing, whereby two groups sing simultaneously, the ma’ulu’ulu seems to be the ‘otuhaka with “a new name and new drum accompaniment” (Kaeppler, 1970, p. 273). Kaeppler (1970, p. 273) observes that if we look at the movements without the associated music, we see that the seated position and movements are the same. Another dance that closely resembles the ‘otuhaka is the ula. Unlike the ‘otuhaka, the ula is a standing dance that requires minimal body or leg movement, but small sideward steps or steps in place. Skill in dancing is more important than rank. In the ula, “… it is not the dancer’s interpretation of the words that is admired, but rather her skill in the interpreting and performing the various dance motifs” (Kaeppler, 1970, p. 274).
Another popular dance is the tau’olunga, which resembles the ula, except for extra leg movements with knees held together. The tau’olunga dance is an individual dance depicting a girl’s evolution into womanhood, just like a quinceanera or a bat mitzvah, and is usually performed at weddings. “As in the ula, the emphasis of tau’olunga is on beauty of movement and the graceful, soft movements based on the rotation of the lower arm and extension and flexion of the wrist find their characteristic expression here” (Kaeppler, 1970, p. 275). Nowadays, it has replaced the ula at formal functions to “display (through hand movements) the grace and beauty of high chiefly women” (Kaeppler, 1970, p. 276). “Its music is adapted from Western musical traditions. Its name and manner of performance are borrowed from Samoa. Its movements and role are Tongan” (Kaeppler, 1970, p. 276).
Considering Christianity has been a major influence on Tongan culture, Tongans attire is quite conservative and requires covering the knees. Dance customs consists of a Ta’ovala, which is a traditional woven mat. It is traditionally worn over a Tupenu, a woven cloth skirt, which is similar to a sarong. The Ta’ovala is tied with a Kafa, a braided rope made of different materials, but usually the fiber of the coconut husk. Women may further ornament their attire with a Kiekie, or string skirt.