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Bastille day: The Day of Dance

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

dance festival 'Heiva i Tahiti'
Dance festival 'Heiva i Tahiti'

When sailing, even the best laid plans are at the mercy of the weather. That said, on July 14th, Bastille Day, we wanted to be in Tahiti 'come what may'. The Polynesians have a reason to make a big deal out of the French 'Independence day' and we wanted to be part of it.

When the French annexed French Polynesia in 1842, they tried to suppress local traditions (egged on by the missionaries) , particularly dance which was deemed too provocative. However, the law changed in 1881 and, for one day each year, on Bastille Day, the Polynesians were allowed to perform their traditional dances in public. French Polynesia was granted a degree of autonomy in 1984 and these restrictions have, of course, now been lifted. But the tradition of dance festivals on July 14th remains. The best known are either on Bora Bora or Tahiti.

monument to commemorate autonomy, Papeete
The park next to the marina in Papeete has this monument to commemorate the autonomy granted to French Polynesia in 1984.

The dance festival 'Heiva i Tahiti' now runs over 12 days with the best acts saved for the 14th July. And we had tickets right at the front, centre stage. As we entered the arena, the first thing that surprised us was the size of the stage. It was huge (35m by 45m with a podium for the orchestra behind it). The reason became apparent when the first troupe appeared. The scantily clad dancers with their flamboyant costumes (using foliage to preserve their modesty), hips gyrating at a speed and intensity to make middle-eastern belly dancers look positively wooden, were impressive enough. But when there are over 1000 on stage together then the effect is extraordinary. Over four hours we were treated to multiple routines with the traditional rhythm (percussive) music coming from the orchestra behind.

festival 'Heiva i Tahiti'

The atmosphere in the festival area was wonderful and the dancers wandered among the crowds and were happy to pose with tourists afterwards.

Dancers mingle with the public
Dancers mingle with the public

The festival highlighted impressive choreography with large numbers of people, immaculate costumes and tradition. And exactly the same could be said for the military parade that we attended in the morning.

The original purpose of Bastille day, as well as symbolising French Unity, was to celebrate peace. So it is slightly ironic that, today, one of the most popular parts of the celebrations is the military parade, which was only introduced in1882.

Now let me digress. There is a TV show in the UK called Countdown. In one round, the contestant tries to form the longest possible word with the letters available. Some are there at the start of the round but the contestant can request more, asking for either a constanant or a vowel. There is an old joke about the Welshman who requested, 'Constanant', 'constanant' and then 'another constanant'. (If you do not understand the joke, please visit one of the Welsh towns of Cwmystwyth, Bwlchgwyn or Ynysybwl).

The military parade took place on Avenue Pouvanaa a Oopa. Having previously visited Aakapaa and Taipavai In the Marquesas, we chuckled, imagining a Polynesean contestant on the same show requesting vowels!

Every imaginable military group was represented in the parade: Navy, Marines, Army, Paratroopers, Foreign Legion, Air force, reservists. There were also Gendarmes, Police, Firemen and even the Coastguard. I am not sure how the order was decided but, the Navy led the way. Their uniforms were pristine. The effort to make every button and shoe so shiny, without smudging the perfectly pressed, brilliant white uniforms, must have taken hours

Bastille day military paradde, Papeete
Bastille day military paradde, Papeete

Sandwiched between these two events, we visited a Peruvian four masted ship, the 'BAP Union', which had turned up for the Bastille day celebrations. The ship is on a two year circumnavigation, promoting Peru as a tourist destination and as a source of luxury items.We confused our guide by asking him to tell us more about Paddington bear's home town and why it was known as 'darkest' Peru.

We did not know that, historically, the country grows an excess of potatoes (about 50,000 tonnes!). To use the excess they have recently developed and are marketing a Peruvian vodka. Unfortunately, tastings were not on offer.

BAP Union ship visiting Papeete, Bastille day
BAP Union ship visiting Papeete, Bastille day
As part of the tour, we learned that the red and white colours in the Peruvian flag were chosen to symbolise both the blood spilt to achieve independence, and the peace that has been achieved since then.
Of course, the ship was in tip top condition for the queues of visitors, but I still liked the ropework used to make the two fenders to protect the paintwork on the tender
Ropework fenders, BAP Union
Ropework fenders, BAP Union

It was a very enjoyable day, not least because all planned boat jobs had been completed the day before. But not the unplanned jobs. Unfortunately, when doing the annual engine maintenance, we discovered that the oil in the saildrive gearbox had traces of white (a sign of water). The seal around the propellor appears to have started leaking water into the saildrive. I had intended to change the seal preventatively in New Zealand but I learned that the preventive maintenance schedules need to be updated .

However, every cloud has a silver lining. Whilst we wait for haulout (to sit in slings for a few hours whilst the seal is changed) we have a few more days to explore Tahiti.

Then we can be on our way see the other Society islands.

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Thank you for such thorough descriptions! As Grateful prepares her plans once we get through the Panama Canal, we will try to be in a good place for the Bastille Day celebrations!

Jul 21, 2023
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Thanks for the comment and glad you liked the post. On Bastille Day there are certainly plenty of opportunities to use your photography skills.

We hope all is well on Grateful.

Tom and Annick

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