The ʻupaʻupa (often written as upa upa) is a traditional dance from Tahiti. It was mentioned by European explorers, who described it as very indecent. It is not quite clear how similar the gestures at that time were with the now immensely popular tāmūrē. In both dances the performers form groups of pairs of a boy and a girl, dancing more or less in sexually oriented movements.


A ʻupaʻupa around 1900

After having arrived on Tahiti in 1797, the LMS missionaries quickly intimidated the local rulers of the island and fixed themselves in a position of power. Although this enabled them to abolish such habits as infanticide, cannibalism and tribal wars, it also enabled them to introduce the idea of sin, which was unknown on Tahiti until then. The joy of dancing, so dear to the Polynesian heart, was one of the first to be axed. The famous Pōmare code of 1819 declared the ʻupaʻupa (and tattooing in the same line) to be bad and immoral habitudes, severely to be opposed. The Leewards followed suit soon after. But dancing continued in secret.

In the code of 1842 many restrictions were relaxed, but the ʻupaʻupa (the general term for dancing then) remained on the black list. In the same year the French proclaimed the protectorate. Being Catholic with some broader views on life than the Protestants, and considering that 'if you cannot beat them, join them', they proclaimed in the official bulletin of 1849 that the ʻupaʻupa was still forbidden, except on public feastdays, but then still without the indecent gestures. The act of 1853, repeated in 1876 was more restrictive. In the hope that the Tahitians would spend their time on more pious occupations than dancing and drinking, a system of licences was introduced. A license could only be obtained by a chef and only on Saturday evenings.

Marquesan chiefess in tapa garments with tapa parasol
Costume in 1909

Despite all these restrictions, dancing went on, less secret or more secret depending on the law at that moment. Nevertheless, many years of suppression had left a mark on it, and although the idea and the steps were still there, the ʻupaʻupa of the old did not really exist anymore.

In the beginning of the 20th century Tahitian dances were only performed on such festivities as the 14th July and saw an evolution into what they have become nowadays. Around 1900 the traditional costumes came back, and although they still looked more like mother Hubbard dresses or ponchos, at least they were made of traditional materials. Around 1920 strips of raffia were added, which soon would develop into the characteristic more or grass skirt (in reality made from hibiscus fibers) of Tahiti. The bare torso (for men only) became acceptable. Prizes started to be awarded to the best dancers on a festival. But it was not until 1956 that Madeleine Mouʻa organised a dance group, called the heiva, of which Teriʻi and Takau, daughters of the last queen of Tahiti became patrons. Finally then traditional dancing had the blessing from the establishment.

The opening of Faʻaʻa international airport in 1961 and the real start of the tourist industry on Tahiti made all the dances which had come forth from the ʻupaʻupa a part of daily life once more.

See also


Patrick O'Reilly; La danse à Tahiti

List of dances

This is the main list of dances. It is a non-categorized, index list of specific dances. It may also include dances which could either be considered specific dances or a family of related dances. For example, ballet, ballroom dance and folk dance can be single dance styles or families of related dances.

See following for categorized lists:

List of dance style categories

List of folk dances sorted by origin

List of national dancesCategories listed on these specialized (categorized) lists should also be included in this general index.

List of ethnic, regional, and folk dances by origin

This is a list of dances grouped by ethnicity, country, or region. These dances should also be listed on the general, noncategorized index list of specific dances.


Tahiti (; French pronunciation: ​[ta.iti]; previously also known as Otaheite (obsolete) is the largest island in the Windward group of French Polynesia. The island is located in the archipelago of the Society Islands in the central Southern Pacific Ocean, and is divided into two parts: the bigger, northwestern part, Tahiti Nui, and the smaller, southeastern part, Tahiti Iti. The island was formed from volcanic activity and is high and mountainous with surrounding coral reefs. The population is 189,517 inhabitants (2017 census), making it the most populous island of French Polynesia and accounting for 68.7% of its total population.

Tahiti is the economic, cultural and political centre of French Polynesia, an overseas collectivity (sometimes referred to as an overseas country) of France. The capital of French Polynesia, Papeete, is located on the northwest coast of Tahiti. The only international airport in the region, Fa'a'ā International Airport, is on Tahiti near Papeete.

Tahiti was originally settled by Polynesians between 300 and 800 AD. They represent about 70% of the island's population, with the rest made up of Europeans, Chinese people, and those of mixed heritage.

The island was part of the Kingdom of Tahiti until its annexation by France in 1880, when it was proclaimed a colony of France, and the inhabitants became French citizens. French is the only official language, although the Tahitian language (Reo Tahiti) is widely spoken.

Tahitian drumming

Tahitian drumming is a style of drumming native to Tahiti and French Polynesia. Tahitian drumming and dance have become symbols of Polynesian heiva to the western world. Heiva is the Tahitian term for entertainment. This authentic performance symbolizes the past and present state of social hierarchies within the community and the island. There has been a significant amount of change to Tahitian drum dancing within the past fifty years. These changes have come from many different aspects of Polynesian society. However, many of them stem from the broader outreach of this tradition to the rest of the world. This music has served as inspiration for many other styles across the globe, especially in other areas of the Pacific.

Broad culture

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