It’s An African-Polynesian Thing…

Those of you who know me personally are aware that I am a professional dancer and musician, centering my expertise on the performing arts of the Pacific Islands.

It was not an arbitrary decision to focus on Polynesian dance (indeed, it doesn’t really feel like a decision at all). You see, I was born in our Nation’s Capital at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. There remain with me vague recollections of denied access to the local amusement park and swimming pool. Buying new clothes meant purchasing them off the hanger since we were not allowed to try them on for size. Yet, in an effort to provide opportunities she never had, my mom enrolled me in ballet classes at the black run neighborhood dance studio before I was old enough to have had an opinion about it.

By the time I was an adolescent, ballet had lost its appeal. Yet, I loved to dance. There was no option in those years to take classes in any African derived dance and music forms. But being Washington, D.C., I was able to find instruction in hula an ori Tahiti (Tahitian dance). They are art forms based in nature and rooted in spirituality, and they seemed like a perfect fit for the young woman I was growing into.

Over the years, I have deepened in my appreciation for the dance and music of many cultures, though I continued to work within the traditional structure of Polynesian dance forms. There were many years in the beginning where I was the only black person I knew of to be involved in Polynesian dance. It is still not very common to find black people teaching this tradition. Sadly, there are those on both sides of the aisle who insist that a person of African ancestry should only do African dance, and that those who are of mixed ancestry choose which group they identify with.

Needless to say, I disagree.

So, after almost thirty years as a teacher and nearly ten years as a priestess of Ifa, I’ve begun to deliberately push that envelope, exploring the aspects of traditional dances that we share as human beings. Pahupahu (Combined Drums of Africa and Tahiti) is an expression of this. Fusing these two forms was not done lightly, as in general I deeply value being true to the essence of each.

I am thankful for my ancestors. I am thankful for my multi-heritage. I am thankful for my community and my family. I am thankful for my work. I am thankful for the path I have traveled, including the rough times, as this has contributed to the priestess I am growing to be.


Iya Mahea