How Pacific Islanders in the US are keeping their culture alive through dance

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In a dance studio nestled inside a building next to New York City Hall, Tamara Bejar Hernandez counts to the beat of a traditional Tahitian dance song as a group of ladies shake their hips from left to right and gracefully glide their hands up in the air and down their arms.

“One, two, three,” Hernandez, founder of the Pacific Islander dance group Lei Pasifika, yells out. “Pretend you’re smelling flowers.”

They are rehearsing choreography for the song “Te Pua No’a No’a,” which tells a story about the flowers spread throughout the island of Tahiti. It’s the same dance I learned a few weeks ago when I decided to join Lei Pasifika’s weekly Tahitian dance classes.

But on this Saturday morning, the ladies are gearing up for Lū’au season, a typically large, vibrant feast featuring live island music and cultural performances from Hawai’i and the greater Polynesia region. Hernandez says the group is booked with performances for the next two months.

“Fa’Arapu,” she calls out over the song chorus, which means to rotate the hips in fast circles.

It’s not the public performances that bring the ladies each week to this humid Manhattan studio. Many tell me it’s their way of staying connected to the Pacific. Some, like me, moved to the city from the Pacific Islands either from the Marshall Islands or Hawaii, while others, like Hernandez, grew up around a fairly large Pacific Islander community elsewhere.

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