Often considered Tonga’s national dance, Lakalaka (pronounced LA-ka-LA-ka) is actually a blend of choreography, oratory, vocal polyphony, musical composition, and texts relating to local legends and history.
This vibrant cultural expression is practised by communities throughout the kingdom 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. The tradition developed in the nineteenth century, and thanks to the fervent patronage of the royal family, it underwent a revival in the twentieth century.
Performances last approximately thirty minutes and involve large groups numbering up to several hundred people. Participants are aligned in rows, men on the right and women on the left (from the audience’s point of view). The men dance in rapid and energetic movements, while the women execute graceful dance steps coordinated with elegant hand gestures. Both groups clap and sing as they move, and a chorus often provides vocal accompaniment. The dense polyphony of the 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 poet, composer, choreographer and performance director. According to the tradition, punakes are expected to continually renew Lakalaka repertory, which explores themes related to Tongan history, legend, values and social structure.