The structure of Tahitian dance performances, plus the composition of the performing companies, reveals a lot about social status and gender hierarchies in Tahiti. A journal article late last year by Jane Freeman Moulin, a former dancer on the island, describes the complexities of the performances and explores the nature of the traditional dance routines. She explains how they reflect the social realities of the island.
One of the characteristics of Tahitian dance is that the performers develop a carefully-choreographed routine, which is varied moment-by-moment during the act by the musicians as their perceptions of the performance change. Timing of the changes is highly flexible, but, according to one authority, coordinating the split-second changes “is very difficult, given that one of the characteristics of all traditional [Tahitian] dances and songs is exactly not to have time constraints (p.113).”
The dance is controlled by the musicians, particularly the drummers, not by the dancers themselves. The drummers provide cues repeatedly to indicate how the performance should change and adapt. The lead drummers, through their physical gestures, verbal signals, and musical cues, signal the rest of the musicians and the dancers what should happen next. They may decide to extend a dance that is going extremely well, introduce a drum solo, add several un-planned repetitions, include a filler section to prepare for a forthcoming routine, or include other spontaneous dance events.
The control over the performance by the drummers reflects the social and gender status constructs of the island. The drumming itself is exclusively a male prerogative. Tahitians feel that the act of drumming requires the strength of a man, and only a man could achieve the “brute force required to produce the culturally preferred sound that Tahitians describe as ‘thunder’ (p.118).” Drumming by a woman would be shameful, they feel. These attitudes appear to contradict the sexual equality that seems to prevail in Tahitian society otherwise, and perhaps they undercut the arguments for gender equality on the island that were presented by Levy (1973).
Moulin explains that while women perform as soloists or as guitar performers, they generally avoid trying to become drummers. As of today, there is not a single female drummer, and none are coming up through the ranks. They appear to accept a “glass wall” around what remains an exclusive male preserve. The drummers preserve their traditionally superior roles by maintain a remoteness from the dancers during rehearsals and performances, which reinforces their social and psychological distance.
The drummers and the dancers also come from different age groups. The drummers are normally mature adults, while the dancers are usually from their mid-teens to their late twenties. This younger age-group, called taure’are’a by the Tahitians, are considered to be pleasure-seekers, people from whom not much can be expected, youth who are mostly focused on attracting mates. They view dancing as an effective way to attract potential mates. While the dancers are subordinate to the musicians, the young male dancers have even lower status than the young female dancers.
Tahitian dance was primarily an expression of folk culture through the 1960s, but beginning in the 1970s the dancing and drumming routines changed into highly professional performances. Never a high-status occupation, the musicians became world travelers when the Tahitian dance troupes started performing abroad, and they began to enjoy new social status and privileges. The men who were the lead drummers in the 1970s started retaining their positions, enjoying the status that their power positions gave them in the dance.
The Tahitians attribute different levels of power and prestige to the different drums used in the performances. The to’ere slit drums, played by the most experienced and mature men, require a high level of knowledge of rhythms and technical proficiency. The other types of drums require correspondingly less proficiency, and are performed by men who are not quite as old or experienced. A statistical analysis of the average ages of the men who perform on the different drums bears out the author’s argument—the oldest men play the most difficult drums, while the younger men play the others.
Moulin concludes by linking the performances of Tahitian dances to the power and status hierarchies of the non-performing segments of their society. The dance, she concludes, represents a staging of cultural relationships, a venue for highlighting social status roles, and a forum for asserting social positions.
Moulin, Jane Freeman. 2004. “Cueing Up: Situating Power on the Tahitian Stage.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 36: 109-127.