Tupe Lualua is a celebrated practitioner of Pacific dance. Awarded the Creative New Zealand Samoan Artist in residence in 2019, she is also the founder of dance company Le Moana and is currently movement tutor at Toi Whakaari. Lualua will present an episode of Pacific Dance NZ's Transform Series, premiering July 1 on facebook.com/PacificdanceNZ
I was born in Wellington and raised in Porirua to a Samoan mother and father. We were part of a wider community of Samoans who congregated within the infrastructure of the church, which became our village away from the village.
I was fortunate to be raised in a richly diverse Polynesian community where we were heavily influenced by Samoan dance and culture. Although when I was at high school, I never thought of dance as a career, it was just part of life. We danced because it was accessible. We didn't have to dance in a studio or in the strict realm of institutional training, we performed all the time because it was our medium for expression.
I thought I'd be an English teacher because English and maths came naturally to me, but in my seventh form year, our mother passed away from myeloma, a form of bone cancer. She started having intense treatment when I was 15 and I chose to spend my days with Mum at the hospital. Our Mother prioritised our education but as her health started to deteriorate, so did my passion for being in class. After she passed away, we had to learn how to carry that grief for the rest of our lives.
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After school, I went to Victoria University but I struggled and, after six weeks, I left and got a job as a checkout operator, but church was still part of my life, where creativity and performances were happening. John Taufao, a Whitireia graduate who was part of our church, encouraged me to join the Whitireia dance school but I kept deferring. Then one day I popped in to have a look and, without wanting to sound cocky, I knew I could dance better than some of those people so I signed up. They majored in Māori, Samoan and Cook Islands dance, which I'd been practising all my life in Porirua, but when I found contemporary dance, it was like falling into a whole new world and I loved it.
I have grappled with the image of a "professional" dancer. Especially within Pacific dance, which in many situations has become romanticised and exoticised. I've never had a slim physique, I just loved to dance and I lost a lot of weight at Whitireia. Yet even then, after I auditioned for a company in Miami, their reply letter to me stated: "You were wonderful. We loved your dance but you do not fit our height and weight requirement." I was a size 10 or 12. A lot of companies looking for Polynesian performers state that you must be attractive, that you must be a certain size, but I knew that dance wasn't about that, especially in Samoan culture. It's about history and storytelling, ritual, cultural ceremonies and rites of passage. At first, when I read that letter, I was sorely disappointed and it affected my confidence and I was ashamed to tell my teachers for fear of letting them down. Gaylene Sciascia and Tuaine Robati are two of my master's tutors and after I reluctantly told them, with a pit in my stomach and a lump in my throat, they were shocked, but then they turned to me and said, "Oh well, their loss." Because I revered them both, I believed them and it lifted me up and kept me moving forward.
We toured internationally a lot with the graduate company Taumata Whitireia. At the time, I didn't really think about the environments in which our cultural performances were presented, but when I did my postgraduate degree at Victoria, I looked more deeply into the academic theories of Pacific Heritage. One of my first papers was 'Framing the Pacific: Theorising Culture and Society' which examines a number of critical issues in the contemporary Pacific through a detailed consideration of the ideas and works of Pacific writers, artists, film-makers, activists and scholars. While engaging in those discussions at university, the conversations I had led me to continually question: Why am I dancing? Who am I dancing for? And how am I framing Pacific Islands' culture for audiences? These ongoing questions continue to fuel my creative process as an artist.
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Home Ground is an arts programme led by Jacqui Moyes and a collective of multidisciplinary artists who work with women in the justice system. It has been one of the most life-fulfilling projects of my career and one that I will never hesitate to engage with in the future. We work at Arohata and in the community - writers offer creative writing workshops, musicians help the women collect sounds, make beats and record their own songs and I assist with expressing narratives through dance and movement workshops. To dance is always an invitation, never a command and eventually the "oh I don't dance" people turn into the "can we do it again" people. The women explore freeing their bodies for expression in a positive light. The whole process was uplifting, working with committed, authentic, honest artists who give nothing but love and support to the process. The women have told us that Home Ground gives them hope, reminding them that they come from somewhere, that they are somebody and not just a number in a system. My hope is that whatever their positive belief or vision is for themselves and their families, they can accomplish it. Something we always tell our students is, your voice is important. If you have something to say, and it's important to you, it's important to the world because you're part of the world.
Everything that's happening for me right now is very important and I would like to make the best of all the things that I'm involved in. I would like to continue to be helpful to other humans and right now, I feel like that is what is happening and I am very grateful.