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Our Own Private Tahiti


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The sound of a conch shell being blown echoes over the rumble of rhythmic drumbeats. Chanting and singing fill the air. Women in brightly colored grass skirts and ornate headdresses sway to the sounds of paradise.

No, we’re not on vacation in the South Pacific. We’re enjoying the traditional Polynesian dances of Te Mana O Te Ra on the Island of Walnut Creek.

Yes, the dance troupe calls bustling Walnut Creek an island because its friendly, intimate feel reminds them of Tahiti. Plus, the exuberance for South Sea island culture is strong here.

“In a way, there’s more [Tahitian] pride here in California than in Tahiti,” says Lisa Aguilar, who, with her husband, Rey, founded Te Mana O Te Ra in 1997. “Kids there want to look and act American.”

The nonprofit group boasts some 140 members, from age 5 to 70, who dance, sing, and play instruments. They perfect their technique in biweekly classes taught by the Aguilars. But practicing and performing is only part of what bonds the troupe.
“The [Tahitian] culture is very family-oriented. I wanted this group to be the same way,” says Lisa. “It’s more than just coming to class [and learning a number. We pull together as a family.”

The Aguilars are the backbone of Te Mana O Te Ra. Fittingly, the two met in Walnut Creek’s Dances of the Pacific group 29 years ago. Lisa choreographs the troupe’s routines and travels to French Polynesia to buy the performers’ outfits, while Rey handles the musical compilations, especially the dominating percussion beats.

As much as Te Mana O Te Ra embodies Tahitian culture, it comes as some surprise that none of the group’s members is of Tahitian descent. But that’s not the point, say the Aguilars.

The purpose of the lively music and sensual dance is to create a welcoming sense of family. This familial feel is what the founders of Te Mana O Te Ra wish to bring to the Island of Walnut Creek.

Te Mana O Te Ra will perform in the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival June 25–26 at the Palace of Fine Arts, www.temanaotera.org.

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