At the massive, family-friendly New Year’s Eve party of First Night Monterey, live bands get a lot of play. But don’t sleep on the dancers.
The Monterey Bay Lion Dance team draws crowds on Alvarado Street to watch their brightly decorated lions dance, prance, eat and spit lettuce into the air. The DiFranco Dance Project teaches Brazilian, Afro-Cuban and indigenous dance to kids to “honor those who have come before us and accept the blessings of the universe.”
A new group, Na Haumana, brings a whole lot of culture with them.
Dominique “Nikki” Pi’ilani Garner and Keith Allan Garner, who live in Marina, formed the Pacific Islander dance troupe one year ago out of their cultural lineage and learning. Nikki was born in Hawaii to Filipino and Guamanian parents, and Keith is part Hawaiian and has family there.
Keith takes care of the group’s music. Nikki has danced in Pacific Islander traditions professionally and competitively for 26 years. In San Diego they belonged to Kaliloa O Kaleo’onalani, a halau – a Polynesian dance group or school, literally translated to “a branch from which many leaves can grow.”
The directors told them they could form their own halau on the Monterey Peninsula to grow the culture. Keith and Nikki submitted a mission statement, taking into account the decline of the Pacific Islander presence after Fort Ord’s closure, and a week later were given the name Na Haumana, meaning “student.”
“They knew that I knew my stuff,” Nikki says. “My husband does too. Our children danced as soon as they [could].”
Nikki says Na Haumana is an immersion in the Pacific Islands, which comprise hundreds of islands grouped into a few countries and regions.
“Pacific Islanders are Polynesia and Micronesia put together,” Nikki says. “Polynesia is the seven island nations – Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, Maori islands which are part of New Zealand, Fiji, and the Marquesas. The Micronesia islands are smaller – the Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, Caroline Islands.” The most well known is Guam, a U.S. territory.
Disney’s Moana was specifically Tahitian but more broadly Polynesian. It’s a relevant reference.
“Songs in Moana were pretty much existing songs in our culture,” Nikki says. “When Maui sings ‘You’re Welcome’ about [his feats], that’s real.”
Nikki’s strong suits are Tahitian and Hawaiian hula: “When I teach Tahitian, we learn the chants, translations, enunciation, what it means,” she says. “We teach the Tahitian greeting, kisses on both cheeks and the ha, when you touch foreheads and noses and breathe in the same breath.”
They are headlining the Chamorro Guam Liberation festival in San Antonio, and may be learning some of the Chamorro language before going.
They rent studio space at SpectorDance in Marina. In just one year they’ve performed at the Greenfield Harvest Festival, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey Church and Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. The members live nearby, with heritages spanning the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Samoa, Korea, Portugal, Nigeria, Japan, China, Ireland. Nikki and Keith are Christian, as are many members; they pray after practices. Adhering to the faith is not a prerequisite to join, but it is one of the bonds of the family-oriented group.
“We wear matching shirts, we feed each other’s children, we carpool,” Nikki says. “Some family members in the group face cancer or have the flu, and we support them. It’s a giant community. That’s typical of halaus.”
The Christian religion was brought to the Pacific Islands during colonization by Western European missionaries starting in the 1600s and has almost completely supplanted the indigenous religions. “[Pacific Islanders] were polytheist,” Nikki says. “We don’t teach [that], or believe in Po, who is the god of night. We teach that as myths and stories.”
The Maori hakka and otaua line dance formations come from the parades of the European military and monarchies. The Tahitian fa’arapu fertility dance used to be done on all fours to connect deeply to the Earth, but that wasn’t considered proper by European mores so it’s now done standing up. Nikki describes the fusion of the two cultures as “a blur.”
At First Night, 32 of Na Haumana’s dancers, kids and adults, will open with “Jam 4 Mauna Kea,” then a 30-minute performance titled “Aloha Aina” (love of the land), with hula kahiko chanting, and melodic and upbeat hula ‘auana.
Na Haumana is still trying to figure out its ultimate form and function. Should they do weddings and private functions, or competitions? Should it be more Hawaiian or Tahitian? Also, what does the community want and need?
“What we were bringing was so pure and raw, I think sometimes we’re a shock. The people on the Peninsula are not used to seeing real Tahitian culture. I can’t dumb it down from what it really is.”
If this seems like a lot of culture for one night, Nikki plans to talk the audience through it. She will be, as many learned from Moana, your wayfinder.
FIRST NIGHT MONTEREY is 3pm to midnight Tuesday, Dec. 31, in downtown Monterey; 7pm and 7:45pm Na Haumana performs at Monterey Conference Center. Free/outdoor performances; $20-$24/adult; $14-$16/youth 6-15; $80/family package. firstnightmonterey.org