A to Z Abroad: Fire Dancing in French Polynesia


Fire dancing has its roots in Samoa with an ancient tradition called the “ailao.” Warriors showed off their battle prowess via artful twirling, throwing, and catching of a war club on fire. This tradition also extended to chieftain daughters during ceremonial processions.

Photo by: c.b.w. 2001

The art of Samoan fire dancing spread to other Pacific regions such as Hawaii and French Polynesia. While the dance of the warrior is relegated to the past, natives still perform the ritual for tourists.

In one of my more touristy excursions, I visited the Tiki Village on the French Polynesian island of Moorea. Not only was I treated to a traditional Polynesian feast (with a pit roasted pig and fruit buffet), but I was lucky enough to watch an incredibly talented group of people put on one heck of a show.

The show started with a little audience humiliation, in that the dancers snagged a few people and pulled them into the middle of the sand filled stage. Lucky me – I was one of them. I have no rhythm, so I was able to go back to my seat pretty quickly! Word from the wise, don’t sit in the front row if you are shy.

After watching a slew of bad tourist dancers in Bermuda shorts and straw hats, the real show began with an ensemble performance of various traditional dances. Between swiveling hula hips and incredible acrobatics, I was mesmerized.

Soon, the fire dancers appeared holding flaming batons and staffs. Along with intricate dance routines, they did their ancient warrior ancestors proud with impressive displays of athletic skill. Flames danced across the stage, seeming to write the history of tradition in the air.

A little fire-eating never hurt anyone!
Photo by: c.b.w. 2001

Like the chieftain daughters before them, the ladies grab fire sticks, too!
Photo by: c.b.w. 2001

Despite my general rule about avoiding obvious tourist attractions, I was glad to make an exception for the fire dancers.  The ritual may no longer have a place in the modern world, but thanks to the concept of tourism the practice is not in danger of becoming extinct.

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Information Source:


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Part of the A to Z Blog Challenge!


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c.b.w. 2013

33 thoughts on “A to Z Abroad: Fire Dancing in French Polynesia

    • I learned a lot in writing this post. Ever since I saw those dancers, I’ve wanted to know the history behind the practice. Twelve years later, I finally got around to looking it up! 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!


  1. catherinelumb

    Having studied anthropology I always had a bug-bear for people imitating ancient tradtions for tourism, with the noteable exception of those related to the performers of said tradition attempting to immortalise the practice. It’s great that fire dancing is being continued and that the culture is being shared, albeit in a different context to the original form.

    What really bugs me is when people dress us in ancestoral costumes PURELY for tourism and don’t implicate the historical roots of the tradition they are now exploting. It’s a two way process – native peoples are often only doing it due to high demand from tourists wanting to view the indigenous ‘other’ that no longer exists in this globally connected world. Tradtions should be respected, not exploited for financial survival.

    Okay, rant over – very interesting post CBW: fanbulous pics too!
    Take Care
    (PS – I joined Twitter recently – @Cat_Lumb – are you tweeting?)


    • I agree with a lot of what you said, which is why I tend to avoid tourist shows, but sometimes there are performances that display a genuine appreciation for past traditions. Had the show I attended been lit up like Vegas, I would have been disgusted.

      The Tiki Village is a business built around tourism, but I didn’t feel like it was an exploitation. For many of these natives, its the only source of income, (thanks to forced modernization courtesy of imperialism). That is sad, but at the same time it is providing a means to keep traditional cultural elements from dying out. From a historical perspective, I am devastated at how many languages, customs, and traditions have been lost over the centuries. Tourism isn’t the only answer (and in many cases it is not by any means), but in some places it offers a balanced compromise between entertainment and cultural preservation.

      Yup, I’m tweeting! @cbwentworth

      I’ll try to find you!


    • Thanks!

      So true. For some, tourism is the only avenue of learning history or gaining awareness of global cultures. Sad as that is in some respects, I’d rather people learn something as tourists than nothing at all.


  2. I have seen similar tourist performances in Thailand and Malaysia. Yes…for the tourists, but otherwise never would have seen that part of past culture. I do dislike though when tourists are pulled in to perform alongside. Advice taken on not standing near the front!!


    • I tend to wander beyond well-known places. Like everyone else, I visit the hotspots, but then I’ll try to find a little corner in the opposite direction of the tour group. 🙂 Glad you’re enjoying the series!


    • One thing I learned about traveling is that its cheaper than you think. I typically save up throughout the school year ($200 a month) and that’s usually enough for a trip in the summer. 🙂 Even on a teacher’s salary, there’s a way to see the world.


  3. Your words and photos reminded me of the Christmas we spent in Hawaii at a beach luau complete with the fire dancers and being dragged on stage to hula. It was a lot of fun, but we had to go to the Cultural Centre to learn more about the significance of the dances. 🙂


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