Tongan Dance

Make sure you pack plenty of memory for your camera. A vibrant and colourful experience for many visitors to Tonga is the dignified and graceful dancing of the Kingdom. Dance movements visually enhance subtle melodies of sung poetry, culminating in a style of dance that is uniquely Tongan.

Tongan dance is also a spectacle that demands the involvement of spectators, and a gift of appreciation or fakapale is a local tradition to reward a dancer. Once these gifts were tapa and mats, but in modern society money is now more common.
Tonga’s traditional dances include the Me’etu’upaki, ‘Otuhaka, Ma’ulu’ulu, Ula, Tau’olunga, Kailao and Soke. A well known traditional dance is the Lakalaka, a dance practised throughout the Kingdom. Expressing stories of Tongan history and legends, the Lakalaka is performed by both men and women, sometimes in spectacular groups of up to several hundred.
Dancers step their feet and move their arms in intricate gestures and decoration includes beautiful bracelets, neck garlands and the tekiteki (a feather headpiece). Wearing of the tekiteki enhances the dancers’ head movements and is considered one of the most important actions in the Lakalaka, a graceful Tongan art form that’s been recognised by the United Nations as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.

The Lakalaka

Considered as Tonga’s National Dance, Lakalaka is a mixture of choreography, oratory and vocal instrument polyphony. This form of cultural expression is practiced by villages and communities all throughout the islands and features prominently at important celebrations such as the coronation of the monarch and anniversaries of the constitution. The Lakalaka developed in the nineteenth century and thanks to the Tongan Royal Family, it went through a revival in the twentieth century.Laklaka performances usually last 30 minutes and involve large group of dancers up to several hundred people. The dancers are aligned in rows. The man dance in rapid movements while the women showcase graceful dance-steps that co-ordinate with their hand movements. Both groups clap and sing as they move which is often accompanied by a chorus.

Important Terms

Lakalaka: step briskly or carefully

Tupenu: costume worn by Lakalaka dancers

Ta’ovala: tongan dress worn by men and women 

Pulotu Hiva: creator of melodies

Pulotu Hava: A choreographer

Punake: Punake is the master poet that composes pieces that combine music, text and body movement

Fakatapu: The introduction to a formal speech or introduction to a Lakalaka performance


tongan dance


The Meʻetuʻupaki is an ancient Tongan group dance. The dance have been reported by early navigators such as Captain Cook. The dance is often performed by men alrhough women may also take part if there are not enough men. The Meʻetuʻupaki resembles a type of war dance and it is also done with little symbolic paddles as opposed to arms.

Costume: The costume worn by dancers is a large piece of tapa wrapped around the body from chest to the ankle and a girdle of leaves around the ankle is also added.

Music: The dance master beats the “lali” while the dancers sing the hymn. The music beat is often slow in the beginning and goes faster towards the end to excite the dancers and the audience.

Dance Movements: The dance movements are often done with paddles in the hand, but the proper addition of the small and subtle movements with the head and legs make the difference between a good and poor performance. The paddles are not used for row like gestures, but are rotated around, moved to left and right or up and down. 


The Tau’olunga is a dance for single young women. It is rare but some older Tongan women and married women do perform a Tau’olunga. The dance is often performed on special occasions. The Tau’olunga is often performed by a small group of girls who may be young as 10 years old but can also be performed individually. During the dance, as per Tongan customs, the parents, cousins, family members or friends come on the stage to put money notes on the dancer’s oiled skin, and then join her in the tuʻulafale. The tauʻolunga mainly consists of a series of hand movements, which interpret the meaning of the selected song. However, most of the movements are so stylised that only experienced practitioners will understand their meaning. Many of the typical gestures (haka) are standardised and have their own name. The movement of the head also plays a significant role: the head and eyes should follow the hands on important movements, otherwise they are to be directed to the public. The eyes are never to glance away from the viewers. From time to time, little nods within one beat (teki) or two beats (kalo) must be made with the head. The girl must smile throughout her performance.

The ‘Otuhaka is a traditional Tongan Group dance with prominent Samoan influence where the performers are seated and make gestures with their arms only and some accentuation from the head and body. The ‘Otuhaka was originally performed by older, chiefly ladies who were too old to stand. In another respect, the ‘Otuhaka was believed to be performed early in the morning to wake the King in a peaceful and subtle way. The performers sat crosslegged on the ground in a half circle with the guest of honour (the chief to whom they wanted to give homage) at the centre. Like the māʻuluʻulu part of the performance is on the beat of the music only, part of it is with additional singing of a chorus. The music by tradition, consists of beating with sticks on the tafua, bamboos, which are rolled up in a mat, just to keep the beat.