The Heiva Festival – A Celebration of French Polynesian Culture!

The Heiva is known as the Polynesian Celebration of Life. It’s a quintessential celebration of all things French Polynesian.

Jun/July 2020

Days to start

What is the Heiva?

heiva festival

Well Heiva comes from combining the Tahitian words hei and va which directly translates as ‘to assemble’ and ‘community places’. Every year during the month of July the stunning islands of French Polynesia celebrates the Hevia Festival known as the Polynesian Celebration of Life.

Most people have never heard of this celebration but the Heiva is a quintessential celebration and symbol of Polynesian culture. The Heiva showcases the unique heritage, art, dance and physical strength of the French Polynesians.  

Where does the Heiva take place?

The Hieva occurs throughout all five archipelagos in French Polynesia with each island holding its own celebrations that showcase their individual cultures.

However, the principal Heiva celebrations occur on the main island Tahiti in Papeete which hosts the main song and dance competitions that occur in Place Toata.

How do they celebrate the Heiva?

heiva festival

The Heiva is an incredibly unique celebration that’s all about celebrating ancient Polynesian culture, tradition and heritage! The Heiva transports you back in time as the French Polynesians showcase the exotic culture of the ancient Polynesians. 

The Heiva is all about showcasing French Polynesian art, dance, music, crafts and culture.  There are so many things to see and do, and so many different Heiva celebrations that occur on all the different islands. Usually the larger the island the larger the Heiva event. 

The Heiva is also a competitive celebration bringing together thousands of singers, musicians, artists, dancers and athletes from all five archipelagos and 65 inhabited islands of the French Territory who compete in both individual and team events for bragging rights.

When is the Heiva festival?

Well there are no official set dates, the Heiva  generally begins in the first week of July and runs for the entire month. 

The Origins of Heiva

heiva festival

What is the history of Heiva? The origins of Heiva go back to 1767 when the first Europeans first set foot on the islands of Tahiti. Early oral and written accounts describe the people as being very carefree and sexually expressive and that song, dance and music were a key part of everyday life.

In the 19th century when the European Protestant missionaries arrived on the islands sometime after the first explorers they seriously disapproved of some of the traditions including the erotic dances, lack of clothing and the worship of ‘false’ gods.

The society was in turmoil from diseases that had been introduced to them by the foreign explorers. King Pomare II of Tahiti struck a deal with the missionaries which gave them extraordinary levels of influence. They sought to assimilate the natives of French Polynesia introducing literacy and clothing into their society, curbing alcohol and banning cannibalism.

They also eradicated several elements of Tahitian culture like the destruction of stone temples and many of their ancient art forms such as dance, music, art, costume-making and tattooing.  

Reviving a Lost Culture

heiva festival

Art, music and dance were always paramount to Tahitian culture and these were artforms that were almost completely wiped out by Colonialism. However many families kept these Tahitian traditions alive practicing ancient dances and songs in secret with great risk and passing them down through the generations.

When the Islands came under French Influence because the French were Catholic, in efforts to erase Protestant influence the French permitted Tahitians to celebrate their culture through song, dance and sporting competitions but only on Bastille Day July 14th and this an early version of the Heiva was born called the Tiurai festival.

A resurgence of Tahitian pride and heritage began to grow, and the Tahitians gained more autonomy they revived and embraced their ancient traditions. The Heiva replaced the Tirurai festival. The Heiva is a Tahitian renaissance of an ancient culture that was long suppressed by colonialism.

banner booking carnivals

Fire Walking Ceremony

Heiva starts with a fire walking ceremony which symbolises the opening of Heiva similar to the Olympic torch ceremony. In this Heiva Fire Ceremony brave participants walk over extremely hot rocks that have been heated in an earth oven.

The rocks are from the local beaches and crack under pressure. They follow the Heiva Great Priest’. As Polynesians don’t wear shoes they have stone-like feet soles which make this easier to do, nonetheless its impressive.

Heiva Sports Competition

heiva festival

Tahitians are proud of their athletic abilities and the Heiva is a cultural celebration that has quite a competitive nature. One of the most competitive aspects of the Heiva celebrations is the Heiva Sports Competition.

The Heiva sporting competitions are kept true to Tahitian traditions. Events in sports like outrigger canoeing, javelin throwing, stone lifting which can be up to 300 pounds, spear tossing and coconutting which involves climbing, picking, and cracking ten coconuts in record time!

The Heiva Sports Competition is about demonstrating a show of strength and is often referred to as the Polynesian Olympics. The gold medal winner will be crowned “Mr. Tahiti”, and receives the adoration of the nation.

Heiva Ceremonies

heiva festival

Many amazing Heiva ceremonial performances are put on during the Heiva that demonstrate how life would have been in the past when the islands of French Polynesia were isolated from the rest of the world.

In the ancient temple of Marae Arahurahu in the town of Paea a select few groups will perform in religious ceremonies. Not a great deal is known about the ancient French Polynesian religions as history was always passed on orally so it was easily erased by the missionaries.

Heiva Art Ceremony

An Heiva art festival called ‘Heiva of the Artisans’ occurs during the Heiva. Artists from all five archipelagos display their work. Each archipelago has its own unique expertise and style.

‘Heiva of the Artisans’ runs concurrently with the main Heiva festival. French Polynesia has amazing traditional artwork made from natural materials such as pearls, shell, coral, pandanus. Additionally, the Polynesian art of tatau or tattoo is put on display.

Ancient Polynesian Erotic Dancing

heiva festival

The ‘main’ Heiva event is the elaborate Heiva dance shows that features teams from all over French Polynesia, who compete in a series of dance heats to qualify for the final Heiva dance competition.

Barely dressed men and women dancers expertly execute the ancient Polynesian dances of their ancestors with dance moves. Let’s just say that the moves are pretty erotic. They make twerking look like a church dance.

This Heiva dance competition is considered so prestigious and is such an honour to win that competitors practice for months in advance. Actually if you are visiting French Polynesia before July you may see Heiva dance groups all around the islands practicing in the lead up to Heiva.

All teams perform original dances in the Heiva Dance Competition where both the music and choreography have to represent traditional themes that can be some ancestral story, legend or myth of the ancient Polynesians.

Heiva Costumes

Heiva costumes are crucial to experiencing Heiva. The Heiva costumes transport spectators back in time. Beautiful Polynesian costumes handcrafted from native island materials are adorned to win over the judges.

The costumes are traditional tribe garments made from natural materials, roots, seeds, plants, feathers and lots of flowers. Women for example will usually have grass woven skirts and headdresses, coconut shell bras and gorgeous flower necklaces and hair pieces.

Heiva Music

heiva festival

Each group is accompanied by an orchestra of fifty musicians made up of island instruments like the ukulele, vivo which is a bamboo nasal flute, pu which are conch shells and drums. 

The Heiva also has a prestigious and passionate singing competition that is sung a cappella and in Reo Ma’Ohi the native Tahitian language that is described as singing directly from the soul.

The Heiva is an incredibly unique celebration and something that needs to be experienced oneself.  It’s all about celebrating ancient Polynesian culture, tradition and heritage and it all occurs in paradise!

Tickets to the Heiva

You can get tickets to see the Heiva shows for about US$30. The tickets usually go on sale around April and can be purchased online via the Maison de la Culture de Tahiti. The Heiva shows are very popular and usually sell out fast.

How to get to the Heiva?

Flying is the best way to get to Tahiti and there are several flight options from LA, Tokyo, Auckland and Chile. To get a quote for a flight click here.

Where to stay for the Heiva?

Tahiti is the best island to stay on because that is where the main events occur in the capital city Papeete. Most tourists tend to stay in the luxury waterfront hotels and resorts that are usually north or south of Papeete and then take a taxi or shuttle to the events.

You could stay in the hotels within Papeete as it has a more bustling city vibe then a laid back beach relaxation holiday.

Check out some of the best offers on accommodation for your visit to Tahiti, or anywhere else in the world go here.

Take a Tour! 

For more information about tours, things to do, sightseeing tours, day trips and more click here. If you hate planning a vacation take a tour! There are so many amazing itineraries for you to choose from on Tour Radar. If you are in the 18-35 range then check out Gap Adventures.  

Is Tahiti Safe?

Tahiti is generally a very safe place for tourists to visitors. Visitors will soon discover that Tahiti is very warm and welcoming to foreigners. There are only a couple of dangers to look out for pickpockets in Pape’ete and moral eels hidden in coral reefs that you may encounter when scuba diving. 
When you find yourself in big crowds during the festival it is easier to get your stuff stolen. So be aware of your valuables at all times or even leave them back at your hotel and only bring some cash with you. Or check out Amazon and invest in one of these travel safety accessories, like a fanny pack hidden under your clothing to store your essentials in. If you have to take your phone out with you, don’t have it on show for long.
Before you go!

We can’t stress enough the importance of travel insurance! Never travel without coverage! Being protected on your travels gives you an irreplaceable peace of mind. Don’t learn the hard way about the importance of travel insurance. Get a quote through our recommended insurance provider, World Nomads!s

Share this publication

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on whatsapp
Share on skype
Share on email
WhatsApp Chat
Generic filters
Exact matches only
Filter by Custom Post Type
WhatsApp Chat