Polynesian Dances: a mix of fitness and self expression

If you are like me, gym-style workouts aren’t your favorite. I’ve been dancing for almost all my life, and I even have a degree in dance, with Hawaiian hula and Tahitian being my specialty. Ten years ago there wasn’t anything I loved more than going on stage with a more — grass-looking skirt — and a coconut bra (tapea titi), and performing an ōte’a with the rhythm of the drums vibrating through my veins. 

I don’t dance on stage anymore, but I still enjoy dancing at home as a way to reconnect with my art and burn some calories. 

I’ve heard a lot about dances like latin and zumba as effective techniques to get fit and lose weight (and dancing in general brings a lot of benefits to your health), but I couldn’t help but wonder if Polynesian dances were good enough to be considered your go-to physical activity to lose weight and gain strength. 

After some research, I found a study that proves that these type of dances aren’t just good for aerobic, but anaerobic exercise too. The study states that on average, aerobic and anaerobic energy expenditure contribute 83.4% and 16.6%, respectively. These aerobic energy contributions are comparable to other endurance exercises, like distance running and rowing. And across dances, the Hawaiian hula had the highest aerobic energy contribution.

So, if you’re looking for a physical activity that’s considered moderate-to-vigorous intensity, but keeps you out of the gym, Polynesian dancing is a perfect exercise for health promotion and disease prevention.

Tone your body and use it for self expression

Aside from the health studies, I can tell you from personal experience that Tahitian dance and Hawaiian hula can do wonders for your body, and can make you have this feel-good experience after a workout. 

Since these dances focus on moving your hips it requires you to have your knees bent for a long period of time. Like doing a small squat while dancing. This is obviously reflected on your thighs, calves and glutes. Because of the movement, you’ll also notice toning on your hips and abs. These dances usually tell a story, and you use your arms to do so, which eventually tones them as well. 

Tempo is crucial here. There are some songs that are mostly storytelling, so they are slow and graceful. But there are some, especially in Tahitian dance, that have a very fast paced, and there’s nothing like a cardiovascular workout like having to last a complete song on your tip-toes moving your hips as fast as possible. 

Additionally, these dances will help you improve your coordination and enhance your memory. Most dances will help you with memory because you have to learn the steps, but Polynesian dances are more than just steps: you have to learn the story you’re telling and what the signs of the arms and hands mean. 

Regarding self-expression, these dances help you explore different forms to express yourself and consider non-verbal communication in a different way. Since you’re telling a story while you’re dancing they way you move and the facial expression you have become part of the story, and since you don’t use words you learn how to use your body to convey the message. This has helped me become more aware of my body and my movements even when I’m off stage.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Polynesian dances nurture your soul as well. For me, it’s not just about moving and learning the steps, these dances are culture. With every dance you get to learn about the culture of these islands, their history and their values, which are a lot about respect for nature. 

Because of that, especially when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, instead of going for a more traditional workout, I prefer to turn up the music and dance to the rhythm of drums. Soon I feel the tension go away and my mind disconnects from whatever was providing stress. I focus on the movement of my hands, the story I’m telling and the music that’s taking me through the journey.  

Need some inspiration?

Three years ago I had the chance to visit the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii. Nothing is as impactful as the way all these dancers come together to perform.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and it has invited me to go through my videos and photos of that amazing experience. During my visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center I got to connect with the culture, history and heritage of the different Polynesian islands, and it was a gratifying experience. I mostly admire the devotion these cultures have for nature.

One of my favorite moments of that visit was watching their dance performances live. Especially when they danced on a moving canoe!

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