The Malialole dance group tries to keep Polynesian culture alive as gentrification creeps into SLC

When his aunt died, Haviar Tuitama-Hafoka knew it was his turn to take charge of his family’s performing arts heritage.

As a first-generation American growing up off the islands where his ancestors lived, he divided his attention between different cultures. But his family dedicated themselves to art for centuries, consciously working to ensure that traditions were not lost, no matter where they lived.

His generation would be no exception. Not under his supervision.

For Tuitama-Hafoka, culture does not just mean performance. He carries traditions with him at all times. He grows his hair into long dreadlocks before cutting it for ceremonies for his nieces and nephews. He often wears a 19th-century necklace that belonged to his great-grandfather. He got his first tattoo at the age of 15 and has since added more.

“At first I thought it was kind of silly, especially the cultural dancing. I wasn’t interested in it,” he said. “But it was my aunt who gave me this understanding and knowledge of the culture and why we behave the way we do and why we present ourselves the way we do, how we interact with people. “

Because of this, he helped found Malialole Dance and Entertainment Studio in 2005. As he pondered ways to keep Pacific Islands cultural traditions alive, he realized that entertainment was an essential opportunity. Another was to provide a platform for Polynesians in Utah to serve their communities.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Haviar Tuitama-Hafoka sets the rhythm with the Malialole Dance and Entertainment group at a Glendale studio on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

“There’s a bit of a loss in our culture, especially among our children and youth,” he said. “So it’s just a matter of bringing it back up and bringing it to the forefront so they understand why we do certain things.”

However, not everything is strictly classic at Malialole.

The group takes a more modern approach and draws inspiration from other ethnic groups on Salt Lake City’s diverse west side. They blend pop, hip-hop, African and Hispanic music into the traditional smooth and heavy beats of the Pacific Islander mix.

For her, dancing resembles sign language. The dancers’ hands move upwards when the lyrics refer to the sun. There are also hand signals for the sea, love, and the act of speaking, which can be repeated with other types of music.

“If it’s a modern song, they can understand the lyrics a little better. And then they can also identify with these songs a little better,” said Tuitama-Hafoka. “But then they use these art forms from Polynesia.”

gentrification issues

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Haviar Tuitama-Hafoka sings with the Malialole dance group at a dance studio in Glendale on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

As the ensemble adapts old customs to a relatively new environment, the Glendale neighborhood also faces changes.

Outside the studio that has housed the troupe at 1133 Glendale Drive for 12 years, a long hallway connects them to a few neighbors in the mall, including a general store, Mexican sandwich shop, hair salon, and laundromat. Its entire fate remains unknown as rumors of a potential redevelopment circulate among tenants.

This uncertainty worries Tuitama-Hafoka.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, grocery stores that offered essential ingredients for preparing dishes from different ethnic groups and businesses that offered much-needed international phone calls have given way to apartment projects.

Though neighborhood groups debate how some changes could be beneficial for Glendale, Tuitama-Hafoka urges them to consider “what the growth means for other people, too, who don’t fit into this quaint ideology of what our neighborhood should look like.”

The challenge of teaching dance

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Haviar Tuitama-Hafoka, left, sings with the Malialole dance group during a performance at Jordan Park on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

Tuitama-Hafoka has also taught dance at Northwest Middle School for 13 years. He previously worked in an arts program for the state’s juvenile justice system and youth service.

Teaching arts to the Polynesian community has been challenging because of the prejudices their young people often associate with gangs and drugs, he said. Some children also need a little nudge to learn and love the cultural aspects of the performance.

“It’s not cool to do things like dance,” he said, “even though we use it so much in our culture.”

Some children in his family are introduced to dancing from a young age. It happened to Malialole, Tuitama-Hafoka’s first US-born niece and namesake of the troupe, when she was 4 years old. In her case, being part of the ensemble was almost an inevitable decision.

Malialole Hafoka dances with the Malialole Dance and Entertainment group during a performance at Jordan Park on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

Now 18, she can still be found rehearsing at the Glendale studio, where black and white photos of her ancestors adorn the walls and where the voices of her grandma, Vida and uncle Haviar guide most of her steps.

Like many Polynesian peers, she felt “weird” when performing. But that all changed when she choreographed a group of friends for a multicultural show in high school.

“I just realized that it’s really important for me to perform like that,” she said. “For these special reasons, to share my culture.”

Like Tuitama-Hafoka’s hair, culture can also be presented as a gift at celebrations such as birthdays or weddings, as well as during difficult times such as funerals or when someone falls ill. The community sees dance as a message from one spirit to another.

“When your spirit speaks. We think it’s speaking on a different frequency,” he said. “And that is the purest form of you. And when you speak in music, it is the purest form of your speaking. That’s why we use it.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Haviar Tuitama-Hafoka and Vida Tuitama’alelagi sing with the Malialole Dance and Entertainment Group at a studio in Glendale on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America Corps member and writes for The Salt Lake Tribune on the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. Her donation to complement our RFA grant helps ensure she continues to write stories like this. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking Here.

Justin Scaccy

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