Polynesian Dance: Culture Loss and Revival Through The Art Of Motion


Pauni Island Grill and Catering provides more than just good Polynesian food. They also do entertainment for events they cater upon request. This entertainment comes in the form of authentic Polynesian dances from the many islands that make up the region. I recently had an opportunity to interview the owner, Seneti Pauni, and ask questions about this part of their business. This interview served as the foundation for further research into the topic of Polynesian dance and the role it plays in the culture.

Polynesian dance is part of the backbone of Polynesian culture. It has been misunderstood many ways since the European world encountered it and gone through periods of active attempts to suppress it, commodification by wealthy foreign businesses, and is now the foundation of many attempts to revive the common culture of Polynesian natives.

What Is Polynesian Dance

Haka: a Polynesian dance using spearsDance in modern western culture is seen as an art form, but to Polynesian cultures, dance is much more than entertainment. The purpose of Polynesian dance is to act as a non-written form of history and record keeping.

In my initial interview, Seneti said, “Most of the dancing is telling a story. The meaning of song, how it feels to us. For Tongans, we have to do the motion to the word, to explain the meaning of the word in the song. If it is a love song, you (gesture towards) your heart, or to your mind (you gesture to the head). It’s all how you move . . . Some of the songs have beats. Your actions go to it. If you get a drum-roll, your feet stamp along with it. It’s more like heavy meaning, very serious meaning.”

By her description, gestures and actions in the dance form a visual language to help reinforce the lyrical meaning of chants and songs that go alongside. Every action has meaning. It’s more than this, however; as she told me later, every island has its own unique way of dancing. Whether it’s the well-known Hula Kahiko of Hawaii, the Moari war chant known as the Haka, or Tonga’s wedding dance, the Tauolunga, each dance has specific elements that identify the island the dance is from (What Is Polynesian Dance? – Kalakeke Pacific Island Dance Co.).

Modern westerners typically imagine Polynesian dances as slow and graceful, with delicate hand and hip motions. While some dances definitely contain this – the Hula Auana, the most widely recognized Polynesian dance, for example – this is hardly representative of the whole. As each dance serves a different purpose, naturally each dance has different actions. Many dances can be wild, with stomping feet, extensive drums, loud chants, pantomime fights with spears, and much more.

But the primary function of each dance tends to serve a major overall purpose: preservation.

Polynesian Dance As A Form Of Culture Preservation

According to the Surf and Sunshine blog, the lack of written language in Polynesia meant that the culture sought other ways to preserve culture. The dances, with their elaborate gestures and motions, serve as mnemonic devices to remember the chants and songs that preserve the cultural legacy of the islands. Each chant and performance symbolizes and depicts events from families and communities. Some chants contain hidden double meanings that sometimes only islander royalty would be told. Other performances would be family specific, passed down through family lines to preserve genealogy. Senti herself mentions having a specific dance for her family. “With my family, we have a song that tells about our family, where we come from, the venue or stuff like that from the village and family. We put those words in a song and do the dance to that one.”

As Seneti Pauni is a Tongan immigrant, I began my research looking into Tonga. When I want to examine the importance of a cultural practice, I often look for references to it in myths and folktales to see how they’re brought up. For this, I turned to the Gifford collection, “Tongan Myths and Tales.” (1924) What context do we see dance brought up in?

The first instance I found was a story of a woman born with the head of a pigeon. This story was set in the time of the 23rd king of Tonga. The woman, abandoned because of her deformity, eventually grew into a beautiful woman who caught the king’s eye. The story tells of how the king participated in the performance of a dance by playing the drums, but kept getting distracted by trying to see the woman. Eventually, she had to be called to the front so he wouldn’t keep craning his neck to see her.

The interesting thing I notice about this, and it is a running theme, is that dance itself is rarely mentioned directly and when it is, it’s usually mentioned in an off-hand manner. The origin of dance itself is not really discussed. You find references to specific chants and dances, but the very first mentions of dance treat it as an already well-established part of the culture. It was simply something that the Tongan people had always done. In short, it is so ancient and central to their culture that there is no need seen to explain its origin.

That said, Gifford points out that the physical culture, such as dress and architecture, puts dance as central to many of Tonga’s most important cultural practices. In his lengthy description of Tongan villages, he notes that there is always a central structure for dancing. These would be paved halls permanently built into the structure of the village. Furthermore, many temporary structures would be built around the dance halls for religious and spiritual purposes. The dance hall itself would serve as a community gathering place, and the temporary structures would transform them into temples and churches, giving dance incredible spiritual significance to the culture.

Special areas would also be designated as spiritual places for dances. One example is a small valley where women would perform a dance called the Kopeka ka’ahu ahi, a mystical dance meant to beg the divine powers for revenge against the murder of husbands or other male family members. Dance is frequently connected with the divine and spiritual, yet so ubiquitous that the mythology never feels any need to explain it.

This trend remains consistent across all the Polynesian islands. Classical Hawaiian hulas were used to tell myths and stories, ancestral histories, and to pay respect to deities like the Volcano Goddess, Pele (Surf And Sunshine). Unfortunately, while Hula may be the most well-known of Polynesian dance styles, a lot of the meaning has been lost due to the conquest of Colonial powers in the 1700-1800s.

Vilifying and Demonizing Polynesian Dance

painting of the death of Captain Cook
‘Death of Captain James Cook’, by George Carter, Public Domain

The impact of European colonialism and imperialism has been felt all across the globe and its impacts are still being felt to this day. The Polynesian islands are no exception. Captain James Cook was the first European to come across the Polynesian islands in 1788, when he discovered Hawaii. While Captain Cook was not initially hostile – by all accounts, he seemed to be friendly at first – his presence kicked off a series of events that would be disastrous to the islands’ cultural preservation. According to Cecily Hong (2013), within 100 years of Cook’s landing on Hawaii, the native population was ravaged by diseases the people had no defenses against, killing off many of the scholars and learned men of the islands. Hawaii’s tendency towards educating only certain royal families in the complicated double meanings of the chants and songs meant that huge portions of the hidden meanings in Hula were lost. This was, however, only an unforeseeable tragedy resulting from first contact. In the centuries to come, colonialism would intentionally seek the destruction of Polynesia’s culture through suppression.

In the Gifford collection, the author collects many quotes by colonialists in their attempts to document the culture. In these quotes, you frequently see the condemnation inherent in the mindset. One such quote describes how they arranged peace treaties. It reads like so:

“The Wars with the Taipihs are continued by land until one of the two kings shall demand truce for the purpose of celebrating their dance-feast, the Olympic games of these savages, which according to their customs must not be deferred too long. In order to celebrate this, they agree upon a term and all parties, friends as well as enemies, assist in the preparations; and as proof that these coarse, blood-thirsty men have no pleasure in a continued state of warfare, but are glad to live in occasional peace and security, they frequently prolong the time necessary to prepare these feasts.” (Gifford, 1924, Emphasis added)

Notice how what we see in this quote is that these dance-feasts are so important that entire wars would be halted to allow them to happen. Yet they are described in language that portrays the Polynesian natives as violent and unpleasant. Other references emphasize the dances’ use in spiritual ceremonies to connect it with black magic. While some did have mystical uses, such as the previously mentioned Kopeka ka’ahu ahi, there is very little of actual “black magic” in these dances. Others witnessed history dances pantomiming war and represented these dances as glorifying violence rather than as preserving knowledge of important past events. Pantomimes of sacrifice retelling tales of gods and other divine entities were taken for real human sacrifice. Others, such as Captain Cook himself, would exaggerate descriptions of the dances motions to add more overt sexualization to create the dramatic fantasy of primitive women who were both willing and anxious to please visitors from faraway lands. The general purpose was to create the image of Polynesian islanders that justified conquest.

Colonial and Imperial Suppression of Polynesian Dancing

According to Lisa Hix (2017), the initial conquest of most of Polynesia served economic purposes. Europeans mostly desired to create sugarcane plantations, but creating such plantations required taking land from the natives and that required justification. Enter the missionaries.

Missionaries were not always horrible to the islanders. According to Hong, early missionaries to Hawaii helped create the first Hawaiian alphabet and were the first to encourage written records of history and mythology. The overall effect of the missionaries was negative, however; including forced conversion to Christianity, suppression of the native religion and the dances that preserved it, which led to the loss of many important stories of Hawaiian history.

Puritan missionaries from the United States were particularly bad. Captain Cook, in his efforts to present the islands as an enticing and consequence-free sexual adventure for travelers, created an image which Protestants in New England saw as scandalous and horrifying (Hix, 2017). In 1819, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent the Calvinist Hiram Bingham to convert what they saw as heathen savages. In his journal, he wrote, “The appearance of destitution, degradation, and barbarism among the chattering, naked savages, … was appalling. This was a dark ruined land whose people were filled with unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, murder, debate, deceit, malignancy—whisperers, backbiters, haters of God … without natural affection.”

In the 1920s, missionaries successfully converted Ka‘ahumanu, the queen of Hawaii. In the 1930s, they persuaded her to outlaw hula dancing. Many native Hawaiians continued the practice in spite of these laws, but were forced behind closed doors. Without the scholars and royals to preserve the secret meanings of the dances, an incalculable amount of history and lore was lost during this time period, but the dance itself persevered.

Other islands faced similar suppression as the various European Colonial powers sought to claim the islands and their riches. In the process, they introduced policies of land-ownership to the islands, many of which either had no concept for, or religiously opposed the notion on the basis that the gods provided the land for use by all people. These changes in policy allowed Europeans to buy up land on the Polynesian islands through deals that the people did not fully understand. Land and culture were stolen away over the course of a few generations. In the case of Hawaii, this culminated in the annexation of Hawaii by a cabal of Protestant missionaries, sugar plantation owners and wealthy businessmen who used the US marines to stage a coup against Queen Lili‘uokalani.

Curiously, these conquests and suppression attempts apparently weren’t felt in Tonga. In my research, I found Tonga to be a consistent exception to this rule, though sources never explained it. When I asked Seneti about this, she stated “Our Queen, who wrote some of our dances, was good friends with the British queen, so we had a strong relationship with them and always got support from them. Even today, when we go to British places, we don’t need a visa; that’s how close we are. With our dancing, I don’t know of any attempts to suppress it.”

While Tonga might have lucked out in this regard, the other islands weren’t so fortunate. Religious and colonial suppression wasn’t the only challenge Polynesian dancing faced either. In the 1900s, a new challenge came: commercialization.

The Commodification of Polynesian Culture

Hula dancers photographed in 1885 as a part of a campaign to commercialize polynesian culture
Hula dancers photographed in 1885 as a part of attempts to commercialize Polynesian culture, Public Domain

To say that all the European and American colonial powers were in favor of the suppression of Polyensian culture would be both unfair and untrue. The reality is that most people didn’t really care about what happened in far away places. The authorities said this should be done, so they went along with it. From the very beginning, however, there was resistance. In the missionary days, sailors enjoyed Polynesian dancing. To them, it played to the fantasy of exotic islands full of friendly natives, delicious foods, and willing women. The religious suppression of dance and celebration in favor of Puritan stoicism and repression upset these sailors, but plantation owners preferred it. If the natives were kept cowed by these policies, it benefited them. They got to produce their crops without a fight from the locals.

This changed with the advent of the steam ships. Suddenly, travel was faster and more convenient. The dawn of the 1900s saw the rise of a new commercial venture: international tourism. Following the annexation of Hawaii, an entrepreneur by the name of Henry Foster saw a new opportunity. According to Hix, just before the overthrow, he gathered a troupe of dancers and took them on a tour of Europe and the United States, calling his show the “Naughty Naughty Hula Dance.”

As interest in the Polyensian islands took off, new trends rose. Vaudeville and burlesque shows created slapstick ragtime show tunes caricaturing islanders and their culture. These songs pandered to the fantasies of Westerners and were more soft-core peep-show than cultural representation. Actual Hawaiian songs, such as Aloha Oe – written as a farewell song to memorialize the loss of Hawaii’s sovereignty to foreign conquest – were appropriated by nearly every cartoon made in the 1920s to the 1940s. Watered down and stripped of meaning, they created an image that in no way reflected the people of the islands, but they served to generate interest.

Westerners wanted opportunities to travel to the islands where these exotic dances came from. This part of history is complicated, with westerners and Hawaiian natives alike seeking to find ways to profit from this. Hix details it in her article more than I will, but the important point was this rise in tourism created a drive to preserve at least a semblance of native Polynesian culture for the entertainment of tourists. With a new monetary incentive, there was suddenly a reason to keep the dances alive.

While this was not done for the sake of scholarship or respect for native cultures, it at least managed to prevent their complete destruction. This came at the cost of loss of meaning, however. Many Polynesian dances were bastardized by western interests, reduced to the most base displays, emphasizing and exaggerating the sensuality while throwing out the culture. For Hawaiians, Hula became a display for tourists, a show to make money off of visitors with too much money and not enough sense.

Then came the one-two punch of the World Wars. As the tourism industry found it increasingly more difficult to stay alive, native islanders found it more difficult to make money off the traditions. Cut off from meaning, interest in Hula traditions dwindled. By the 1960s, rock-and-roll had become the favored genre of music for native Hawaiians (Hix 2017). The language, which had at points been officially banned (Trask and Haunani-Kay, 2018), was nearly extinct.

It goes further than this, though. You may have noticed that this article has strayed from a general discussion of Polynesian dancing to focus on Hula. This is not by accident, as it reflects the kind of sources I was most able to find. The commercialization of Hula and America’s obsession with it dominates the discussion, even in academic circles. There is huge interest in Hawaii, but less overall research goes into other Polynesian cultures. Hula has become synonymous with Polynesian dancing, despite it being only one of many different kinds of dancing in the region. To westerners, all Polynesian dances are Hula. As a result, the tradition of the Hula dance was nearly lost as its meaning was slowly stolen from it.

Yet it wasn’t lost. It had been suppressed, commercialized, stripped of meaning, but it survived. The 60s and 70s began a new movement around the world: cultural revolution and restoration. Commercialization nearly destroyed what suppression could not, but it kept it alive in some form. As a new generation came to adulthood in the period of civil rights revolutions, the dance began to reappear in its original intent.

Polynesian Dance as A Form Of Revolution

As the civil rights movements kicked into gear, Hawaiians lost their shame at the traditional dances. What had become little more than tourist shows were seen as a chance to revive their native culture. Hawaii experienced a cultural renaissance. The traditional ritual dances and music of the natives, kept alive by families in the privacy of their homes, emerged as a symbol for revival.

New teachers opened dancing schools. People like Iolani Luahine and Maʻiki Aiu Lake

took the renewed interest in traditional Hawaiian dance to bring these traditional practices back into the mainstream native culture. These schools eschewed the soft, sensual styles created for tourists in favor of the stronger, more primal modes that the natives created to pay respect to their gods and their chiefs.

In “The Power of Hula,” Cecily Hong lists two specific elements. First, that Hula Kahiko is meant for everyone: the dance is meant to be shared. Second, that Hula honors the past: “Hula is a remembrance and a reawakening of a story told and a life lived. It begins on the basis of respect. One of the first things that are taught in hula is the importance of respecting yourself.” You see this reflected in these schools. While they are now taught to help preserve traditional culture, the schools are open to anyone. People of all races and ethnicities are allowed to participate in these experiences if they do so with an open mind to their intent. The dances not only live, they thrive. After all the attempts to suppress them, to commercialize and strip them of meaning, they’ve returned back to their original purpose: to connect the islanders to their history and culture.


The release of Disney’s “Moana’ demonstrates that commodification of Polynesian culture has not ceased. Moana was greenlit and made specifically to help sell tourists on the “Polynesian experience” of their new Ko Olina resort (Grandinetti, 2017). It would be foolish to think that Disney had any motive other than money in creating this movie, but it does show some shifts that could be taken as hopeful.

For starters, the film-makers go out of their way to emphasize Polynesia as a collection of cultures rather than just one homogeny. While the film doesn’t explore the different cultures in much depth, it carefully steers away from being a “Hawaiian film.” This acknowledgement of Polyensian diversity, though anemic, is at least a step forward.

As a positive, it has, to some extent, revived interest in Polynesian culture. Just as the initial commodification of Hula led to its use as a cultural revolution, this renewed interest Polynesian culture created by the film can potentially open the door for greater revival and understanding of the diverse peoples of the region.

Polynesian dance represents a rich tradition of non-written history and cultural preservation. It has survived attempts to suppress, destroy, and commercialize it, once again returning to its true purpose. Seneti Pauni may have said it best in my interview with her: “The reason I do (dancing) in catering and entertainment: first I want it to go together as a culture, my culture’s food, with my culture’s dancing . . . Second is to share with my kids and grandkids, so they won’t lose their culture.”

For the Polynesians, dancing is for people to build and strengthen their connection with who they are and the legacy of their ancestors. For westerners, the dance is shared in the hopes that we can achieve a better understanding of who they are and strengthen our relationships with them. We’re far from as good as it gets when it comes to Western understanding of Polynesian culture, but the potential for a better future is there. It’s up to us to build on it.

Works Cited

  1. Edward Winslow Gifford. Tongan Myths and Tales. Honolulu, The Museum, New York, Kraus Reprint Co, 1924.
  2. Grandinetti, Tina. “Moana Might Be Great for Representation, but It’s Not All Heartwarming for Hawaii.” The Guardian, The Guardian, 12 Jan. 2017, www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jan/13/moana-might-be-great-for-representation-but-its-not-all-heartwarming-for-hawaii. Accessed 21 Mar. 2021.
  3. Haunani-Kay, and Trask. “The Struggle for Hawaiian Sovereignty.” Culturalsurvival.org, Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, Mar. 2018. www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/struggle-hawaiian-sovereignty-introduction. Accessed 21 Mar. 2021.
  4. Hix, Lisa. “How America’s Obsession with Hula Girls Almost Wrecked Hawai’i.” Collectors Weekly, Collectors Weekly, 27 Mar. 2017, www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/how-americas-obsession-with-hula-girls-almost-wrecked-hawaii/. Accessed 7 Apr. 2021.
  5. Hong, Cesily. The Power of the Hula: A Performance Text for Appropriating Identity among First Hawaiian Youth. The University of San Francisco, 2013. https://repository.usfca.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1070&context=diss
  6. Surf And Sunshine Blog. “Polynesian Dances and Chants Explained.” Www.surfandsunshine.com www.surfandsunshine.com/polynesian-dances-and-chants-explained/. Accessed 7 Apr. 2021.
  7. Pauni, Seneti. Personal Interview. 5 April 2021
  8. What Is Polynesian Dance? – Kalakeke Pacific Island Dance Co. www.kalakekepidc.com/what-is-polynesian-dance/. Accessed 7 Apr. 2021.