Saturday, September 20, 2008

Un-hip; or, my career as a Tahitian dancer

I wanted to take an exercise class, and I wanted something (a) aerobic and (b) likely to strengthen my core muscles, since I tend to get backaches from standing up to lecture and since my daily exercise regimen of biking to and from work is pretty much all about my legs. So I looked into offerings at the university's Leisure Center, which offers dance classes, exercise classes, scuba certification, snorkeling trips, surfing lessons and a lot of miscellaneous stuff from ceramics to home brewing. I loathe regular old aerobics in the same way I loathe most exercise for exercise's sake, thanks to my innate laziness and a history of sadistic gym teachers. So I decided to go for dance instead. It was a toss-up between belly dancing and Tahitian dance, but I went with Tahitian on the grounds that it meets twice a week instead of once.

Tahitian dance has several forms, but I'm learning 'ote'a, which is what you usually see billed as "Tahitian dance." (See YouTube for about a zillion examples.) 'Ote'a is the most frenetic of Polynesian dance, in my experience, and also the most frankly sexual. It was originally danced by men but now is danced by both men and women. Women dancing 'ote'a keep their feet flat on the floor, heels together, and keep their shoulders still and level. All the movement of the body happens in between those two points, and it's focused on the hips, which shake and swivel and move in a figure-eight (or so I'm told; we haven't gotten to that part yet).

Traditional dancers wear hibiscus-fiber skirts with hip tassels that emphasize the movement of the body, and high feather and fiber headdresses that emphasize the dancer's height. We are only required to wear a pareu (Tahitian sarong) wrapped as a short skirt, which is considerably simpler, and it doesn't really do much more than put us in the mood - like wearing a gi to karate class, it's not like you couldn't do it wearing something else, but wearing one creates the right atmosphere. Even so I bought bike shorts today to go under my pareu so I can stop worrying about what happens if I shake the darn thing off.

The music for this form of dancing is basically just drumming, but there are several types of drum involved and the rhythms are quite complex. I like drumming and it's cool to listen to these driving beats - it's as if the energy of the drumming drives the movement of the dancers. It's the physicality of the rhythm that does this. Rather than the drum being an accompaniment to the dance, or the dance a response to the drum, it's really more as though the drumbeats settle in under your breastbone and set something in motion.

'Ote'a is HARD. Not only does it take a lot of core strength to move your hips that fast, it takes a lot of coordination to remember what to do with the rest of your body while you're at it. All the while you are dancing, you are holding your arms at shoulder height or higher, in a series of set gestures. And the ball-and-socket design of the human hip is tested to its limit in this case. I am finding that it's the muscles and tendons on the OUTSIDE of my hips that are feeling the most strain; and how do you stretch them? It's clear at least how far I am from the particular type of fitness this requires. So far in my life my hips have done pretty much everything I wanted them to do, so feeling this un-hip, so to speak, is a new experience. Oddly, I am liking it a lot.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I nearly doubled over laughing! I discovered this post in a google for Otea skirt tassles. I too took up Tahitian dance for exercise and now I dance with a professional troupe. I did bellydance first, which requires your upper half to move in opposite directions as the bottom half - but NEVER at the insane speed of the 'Omi' (hip circles on speed). Once you've done it a bit longer, wait till you have to dance in a 'More' - the 'real' grass skirts, actually made of tree bark. They are HEAVY. I've discovered water fitness and hot tubs help with the tiny hip muscles you use... but then mine to scream at me more these days. But hey, if I can do it at 50...anybody can!