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  • Inner Exhilaration and Speaking Truth through Metaphor:An Exploration of the Theological Significance of Māfana and Heliaki in Tongan Dance
  • Kelly Johnson-Hill (bio)


Tonga is one of the few Polynesian nations in which dance has not, for the most part, become commercialised. Even when it is performed for tourists, Tongan dance is defined by certain key concepts, which ensure that dance retains an element of sacredness. In this essay I will explore the theological significance of two such concepts: māfana and heliaki. I will briefly outline the role played by dance in Tongan culture, and the relationship between dance and Christianity in Tonga. I will then enter into a theological engagement with the concepts of māfana and heliaki in turn. This will be done in conversation with other theologians from the Oceanian region, as I search for areas in which my own reflections might contribute to other emerging Oceanian contextual theologies. I will conclude with a critique of the concepts which I have outlined, and with suggestions regarding the transformation of the theologies behind these concepts into agents of liberation for Oceanian peoples.

I am a dancer myself, having grown up on the campus of Pacific Theological College in Fiji. Although I perform primarily Cook Islands dance, I have had the privilege of learning and performing some forms of Tongan dance. I have experienced the exhilaration of māfana and the subtle beauty of heliaki from the perspective of the performer. My writing is thus inspired by my own dance experience, as well as by my years as an audience member.

Dance and Culture in Tonga

Dance is integral to Tongan culture. Virtually every celebratory occasion in Tonga is marked by dance performances. Dance functions as both [End Page 19] a 'gift' to visitors/monarch/God, and as a culturally accepted means of portraying with pride the skills of one's own group (Kaeppler 1993: 1). The majority of Tongan dances reflect the kingdom's status as 'the most highly stratified society in the Pacific' (McLean 1999: 121). Most dances are performed for the purpose of honouring chiefs, who themselves owe ultimate allegiance to the king. As the king is (traditionally) believed to rule by divine right, even secular dances performed in his honour are seen as indirectly honouring God – hence the emphasis placed on near-perfect synchronicity and the maintenance of 'elevated consciousness' in dance performances (Linkels and Linkels 1999: 49).

Ad and Lucia Linkels maintain that the intent, function and visual presentation of Tongan dance work together to re-affirm Tongans' collective pledge of loyalty to the existing social order (Linkels and Linkels 1999: 41). This is exemplified in the most highly valued Tongan dance, the lakalaka. Termed by Linkels a 'metaphorical danced speech,' the lakalaka is a highly stylised dance form in which dancers are divided according to gender, rank and skill (Linkels and Linkels 1999: 97). The structure of Tongan society is reflected in the physical placement of dancers. Up to four hundred dancers stand in lines: males on the right, females on the left. The dancers of highest rank occupy the front-row centre positions, flanked on either side by the highest skilled dancers. Dancers decrease in rank based on how far back they are placed from the front row. The lakalaka is thought to encapsulate the essence of 'Tongan-ness,' by expressing the pride and meaning of being Tongan (Linkels and Linkels 1999: 41). As such, it is the most commonly performed dance at ceremonies honouring the royal family.

Other important dance forms include the ma'ulu'ulu, a seated dance for men and women; the me'etu'upaki, an ancient dance performed by men with 'dance paddles' (paki); the kailao, a wordless dance performed by men with stylised weapons; and the tau'olunga, a women's solo dance imported from Samoa (Linkels and Linkels 1999: 97–98). Due to the impressive reach of Tongan political prowess from the tenth century onwards, Tonga became Oceania's greatest recipient of foreign dance genres (Moyle 1991: 49). Dances from Fiji, Samoa, and other cultures encountered by Tongan traders and royal delegations were adopted and re-invented over time, until they became...


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pp. 19-34
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2009
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