“She stood in the middle of eager eyes and silent wonder. Her skin glistened with the oils of her village. Her face remnant of her island’s beauty. She is at a standstill – sharing a smile with pretty eyes. But she was at odds with herself – will she be ready, will she be what they wanted. Then, as sweet as a mother’s love – the Tongan music began to flow. And then she felt it. She, was on her way home.”
– Honorable Frederica Filipe, My Ta’ahine Tau’olunga
From the many traditional Tongan performances, my favourite is the Tongan Tau’olunga or solo dance. The Tongan Tau’olunga was adopted from the Samoan Taualuga. The Tau’olunga was developed for young maidens of the village to perform, showcasing their grace and untouched beauty. At a young age, Tongan girls are taught to tau’olunga but few of them are able to perform with the warmth that captivates an audience, making their dance “malie” or very good. When I would perform, I was taught the haka to the song but it never felt like what I was doing was choreographed. Every gesture flowed smoothly with the melody – like I could feel the lyrics of the song in my heart and the spirit that flowed with every movement of my hands.
My mother would tell us that her earliest memories of the Tongan Tau’olunga would be the time before going to bed that she would have with her late grandmother, Her late Majesty Queen Salote Tupou III. She would listen to her sweet voice and fall asleep watching the shadows of Queen Salote’s hands on the wall as she choreographed a new song she composed. When Queen Salote would compose and choreograph songs, it were my great aunt late Paluvava’u and her cousin, late Lady Veiongo Lasike, that received her teachings. They would perform the dances as my late great grandmother would watch and make changes until the performance was perfect.
Like my mother, Tongan music and dance was all around me from an early age. I remember watching Palu sit and hum a Tau’olunga song as her hands would gently fold, clasp, twirl and unfold – creating poetry in motion. From my late great grandmother, every lesson she taught Palu were the lessons I received. She taught me almost every tau’olunga I performed as a child. We would spend hours practicing until I had memorized the choreography (haka). Then she would take the extra time to perfect my stance and head gestures (tekiteki). There were fun days and not-so-fun days of our Tau’olunga lessons as I would throw awful tantrums as a child. But I would not trade those lessons in for anything. My great aunt Palu had so much patience for me that we grew closer with every dance she taught me. Best of all, she taught me how to enjoy my Tau’olunga and how to express the joy and warmth (mafana) I would feel.
Since then, I have had different teachers who taught me a dance for every occasion; each one was and is truly an expert in their own right. For my sister’s wedding to Lord Fusitu’a, it was Malukava (Punake or Expert in song and dance from Tatakamotonga) that taught me my tau’olunga. Now, he was a perfectionist. He was tough but I learned the humbling lesson of how to accept criticism. For my late grandfather’s, His Majesty King Tupou IV, last birthday party, it was Tu’imala Kaho who taught me the tau’olunga I would perform. Our lessons were thorough and rich as she taught me the names of different hand movements and techniques. Her method of teaching was as elegant and as gentle as her famous singing voice. After my lessons from senior experts in the field of traditional music and dance, it was refreshing to have someone who was a young authority on the subject – Professor Niulala Helu. Professor Helu’s approach to teaching traditional music and dance was like learning from a familiar friend – kind, understanding and insightful. All of his students felt comfortable with his teaching methods, enough to even question certain movements but he was always open to listen and assist.
When I would perform a Tau’olunga, it was more than just a form of expression for me. It was the summation of the best teachers, with the toughest lessons who gave me their best – even when I felt I was not good enough. That is the beauty of being taught to Tau’olunga, the one who is chosen to perform is held with sincere regard, loved for every second they dance and honored as a jewel of their family. With every Tau’olunga I was taught, I knew I was deeply loved. My late great aunt Palu loved me. My late great grandmother loved my mother. And when my daughter grows up, I will teach all the best that I have learned. Most of all, I will teach her the dance of her country, culture and people – the haka and tekiteki passed down from her late great great grandmother, Queen Salote III. For there is no greater connection than to be taught from a place of love, especially when it is tied to a culture that transcends time and space.
As many Tongans have migrated and settled far beyond the shores of our Kingdom, it goes without saying that once they hear the Tongan music, feel the fire of the beat and spirit to dance – they will feel the love and be mafana to realize that they will always have a home in this ever-changing world. Though humble and distant our roots may be, there is an unconquerable might and irrefutable history that comes with the land given to God, filled with traditions embedded by love and blessed with the virtue of the Tongan Tau’olunga.
Article Written By: Hon. Frederica Filipe