Lakalaka, dances and sung speeches of Tonga


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Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2003)

The Tonga archipelago lies in the South Pacific approximately 2,000 kilometres north-east of New Zealand. It is the only constitutional monarchy in the Pacific region. Often considered Tonga’s national dance, Lakalaka is a blend of choreography, oratory, and vocal and instrumental polyphony. This cultural expression is practised by communities throughout the islands and features prominently at important celebrations such as the coronation of the monarch and anniversaries of the constitution.The term lakalaka means “to step briskly or carefully” in the Tongan language, and its origins can be traced to a dance known as the me’elaufola. The tradition developed in the nineteenth century and, thanks to the continuous transmission and the patronage of the royal family, it underwent a revival in the twentieth century.

Performances last approximately thirty minutes and involve large groups of up to several hundred people. Participants are aligned in rows, men on the right and women on the left.The men dance in rapid and energetic movements, while the women execute graceful dance steps co-ordinated with elegant hand gestures. Both groups clap and sing as they move, and a chorus often provides vocal accompaniment.The polyphonic singing coupled with the synchronized movements of hundreds of dancers offers an impressive spectacle.The creative force behind the performance is the punake who is at the same time poet, composer, choreographer and performance director. Punakes are expected to continually renew the Lakalaka repertory, by exploring themes related to Tongan history, legends, values and social structure.

However, over the past few decades, the number of performances has, diminished and young composers tend to recycle the existing repertory rather than create new compositions.