Siva afi, or fire knife dancing is a tradition rooted in Samoan culture that incorporates the Samoan weapon nifo oti, or war knife. Our tribal performers twirl the weapon and showcase other acrobatic tricks that will have you on the edge of your seat as they literally set the stage on fire!
The 17th Annual International Siva Afi Competition in Samoa had unleashed powerful fire-knife dancers hailing champions from two divisions. The Junior Division had 10 participants while the Senior Division consisted of 11 aspiring young talents. The group for Junior/Senior Routine/Pair was also opened to showcase smoothness of choreography and in sync skills with a partner. What is the biggest why behind these efforts of starting fire-knife dancing at a very young age?
Besides fire-knife being a traditional dance that represents a lot of Samoan history and culture, it had become a way for many boys to reach their dreams. From 1946, when an American-Samoan dancer, Freddie Letuli had put fire on the nifo oti, fire-knife dance evolved as a source of entertainment. While it brings to life how a warrior used this weapon, it paved a way to being a sport that competitors from all over the world came for.
Fire-knife dance had become means to an end for many performing artists of the said sport. It became a rare skill as it passes from one generation to another. Its evolutionary legend had made many people win competitions. They got known not for their skill alone but also the beauty of its story, and their own story.
Overseas, the arts demanded fire-knife dancers for world-class acts like Cirque De Soleil, Disneyland and were featured every now and then in movies. This helped a lot of Samoan families back in their own countries and to that, every Polynesian boy put an effort in being great at fire-knife dancing.
Sporadically, this sparked interest from enthusiasts all over the world. Sons and daughters of the fire emerged from Tahiti, Hawaii, America, Tonga, Japan, Taiwan and even the Philippines. And this can be witnessed in different fire-knife competitions that happen every year.
THE MISSION OF THE ANNUAL SAMOAN INTERNATIONAL SIVA AFI COMPETITION
Leota Lene Leota, the organiser and owner of the Siva Afi Competition, and founder of the Ailao Club, sees to it that he provides a channel for uprising fire-knife competitors to attain what they dream of. To make a decent living out of Samoan’s traditional dances, specially fire-knife dance.
When I went to Samoa last May, we were invited to watch the popular Fia Fia night (translated literally as “happy” night) at Ohh La La Matautu-Tai (opposite the Marina). As they introduced the cultural dances, they explained that the show consists of young boys and girls that work during the day but choose to come to practice afterwards to learn. When they saw the interest in them, they decided on keeping up a Fia Fia night every Tuesday to encourage these youngsters to showcase their talent. This will not only get them involved with their roots but also, it builds their confidence and competence. Their show came with a traditional Samoan dinner and a show to wrap up the night.
Many tourists loved their performances. They loved the culture behind it. As representatives of Samoa, they developed confidence and eventually loved it because of the camaraderie they develop with the group. There are a lot of boys who sell ula (Samoan word for ‘fresh leis’) in the streets who also joined. Later on, as local competitions were held from within clubs in Samoa, they managed to level up and flourish not just in fire-knife but in performing over-all.
THE BOYS OF UTMOST POTENTIAL
‘ULA BOY’, VAELAA ILOA
This year’s champion at the 17th Annual International Siva Afi Competition is an ‘ula boy’ who was a vendor in the streets. He managed to work as a fire-knife dancer for a club and got sharpened as time went by. As he competed at the Senior Division, winning by 1 point over another competitor, Jacktai Laban, serves as an inspiration. He is a living epitome of Leota’s Siva Afi mission.
Jacktai Laban, 17 years old, was taught by his uncIe, Lauvao Miki To’omalatai on how to dance the fire-knife. I got a chance to watch this boy when also, the Samoan Traditional Resort invited us for another Fia Fia night which I thought deserved world-class recognition.
Tai, as he is mostly known by his friends and family, has fast hands. He got an assured gait and a strong stage presence. He was playing the drums for his group right before he performed the fire-knife dance almost at the end of the show. This gave him ripped, lean guns that made spinning double knives easy breezy.
Since 9 years old, Tai was helping his family through fire-knife dancing. At present, he is dancing for the resort under Chief Poloma To’omalatai. He, who was the trainer of legendary Hogan To’omalatai, (won three times as champion in the International Siva Afi Competition) and Falaniko Solomona, (won once in the International Siva Afi Competition and was the champion for the World Fire-Knife Competition 2017). Both have advanced to Hong Kong Disneyland in their careers as fire-knife dancers.
The generation of To’omalatai’s is proud of the new champion of the junior division through Pasikale To’omalatai. Keeping up their hold on the title of being Siva Afi Champions wouldn’t be possible if not for Chief Poloma Toomalatai’s (Pasikale’s father) guidance and training.
From when Pasikale was a little boy, he was light on his feet. Quick to respond and his senses have extraordinary alertness. Combined with the strength that lines his veins, Pasikale soared with humility. He initially thanked God from an online interview I had asked of him.
Acknowledging the equally good competitors he aligned himself with, he emerged as the best with no drops. He had more than a minute of a routine (2 minutes for double-knives) and the strongest yet most comfortable with the drum beats. I saw him perform two Thursdays while I was in Samoa, also at the Samoan Traditional Resort and he played the drums along with the older Tai side-by-side. This leaves me in awe because Polynesian drums need quick and strong arms. They use the traditional ones that are not amplified but relies greatly on the strength of playing hands.
No doubt that this was part of Pasikale’s training. It hastened his breathing. And his stage performance improved a lot under the Samoan Traditional Resort Polynesian Dance Group. Pasikale’s one among the youngest batch to practice and perform after school.
HOW DID YOU PREPARE?
I go to school and trained hard every day with the help of my Dad and especially my two uncles, Masoe Hogan To’omalatai and Falaniko Solomona. All of their efforts, I combined with commitment. Also, I thank my grandmother for supporting me in everything I do.
– Pasikale To’omalatai on how he trained for the competition
He was also shocked with the results as he just plays fire-knife by heart. According to how he feels the beat of the drum, the heat of the fire and the voice of the inner peace he hears when he does siva afi. He knows this is just the beginning of what he heeds for. He looks up to his uncles who made a name for themselves in the name of fire-knife. And now, their efforts serve their family very well. To every Samoan, they find achievement in bringing honour to their family and country through cultural traditions.
All these three winners who got the greatest edge above all competitors dare to represent. A lot has to be done in fulfilling a journey of high hopes and dreams of greener pasteur. Kudos to the organisers of Siva Afi competitions for keeping the youth involved in cultural performances. They are kept from harm through this way.
Keep hybrids coming. And keep shocking the world with combinations of legends. There’s a lot to expect from Vaelaa. Jacktai for sure will try to win back that 1 point loss. Finally, how do you keep up with a triple boost (Poloma, Masoe Hogan and Falaniko) in the emerging Pasikale?
You have expectations. You may have reservations. And I shall continue to witness. See the future with me as I write more about the siva afi that keeps us all in awe.