With every step, this Utah troupe keeps Polynesian culture alive, but a potential threat looms

Malialole Dance and Entertainment Studio has been in Salt Lake City’s Glendale neighborhood for 12 years, but it may soon be overtaken by redevelopment.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Haviar Tuitama-Hafoka sings as the Malialole Dance and Entertainment group performs at a Glendale studio on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

When his aunt died, Haviar Tuitama-Hafoka knew it was his turn to take the reins of his family’s performing arts legacy.

As a first-generation American, growing up apart from the islands where his ancestors lived, he split his attention between distinct cultures. But, for centuries, his family was dedicated to the arts and worked intentionally so traditions wouldn’t be lost no matter where they lived.

His generation wouldn’t be the exception. Not on his watch.

Culture for Tuitama-Hafoka is not only about performance. He carries with him traditions at all times. He’s growing his hair into long dreadlocks, before cutting them for use in ceremonies for his nieces and nephews. He often wears an 1800s necklace that belonged to his great-grandfather. At age 15, he got his first tattoo, and has since added more.

“I thought it was kind of stupid, at first, especially cultural dancing. I wasn’t into it,” he said. “But it was my aunt that instilled that sort of understanding and knowledge of the culture, and then why we act the way we do and why we present ourselves the way we do, how we interact with individuals.”

That’s why he helped establish the Malialole Dance and Entertainment Studio in 2005. While thinking of ways to keep the Pacific Islands’ cultural traditions alive, he found that one essential way was entertainment. Another was to provide a platform for Polynesians in Utah to serve their communities.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Haviar Tuitama-Hafoka sets the rhythm with the Malialole Dance and Entertainment group at a studio in Glendale on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

“Our culture is becoming somewhat lost, especially amongst our children and our youth,” he said. “So it’s just trying to bring it back up and bring it to the forefront where they understand why we do specific things.”

Not everything is strictly classical at Malialole, though.

The group takes more modern approaches and draws inspiration from other ethnic groups on Salt Lake City’s richly diverse west side. They throw pop, hip-hop, African and Hispanic music into the traditional soft and strong beats of the Pacific Islander mix.

For them, dancing is similar to sign language. The dancers’ hands move upward when lyrics talk about the sun. There are also hand signs for the ocean, love and the action of speaking that can be replicated with other kinds of music.

“When it’s in a modern song, they’re able to understand the lyrics a little better. And then they connect to those songs a little better, too,” Tuitama-Hafoka said. “But then they’re using these art forms from Polynesia.”

Gentrification woes

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Haviar Tuitama-Hafoka sings with the Malialole dance group at a dance studio in Glendale on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

As the ensemble adapts ancient customs to a relatively new environment, its Glendale neighborhood also faces change.

Outside the studio the troupe has held for 12 years at 1133 Glendale Drive, a long hallway connects it to some neighbors in the shopping plaza, including a general store, a Mexican sandwich shop, a barbershop and a laundromat. All of their fates are undetermined as talk of a possible redevelopment floats among the tenants.

Such uncertainty worries Tuitama-Hafoka.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, grocery stores that offered key ingredients to make dishes from various ethnicities and businesses that offered much-needed international phone plans have given way to apartment projects.

Though neighborhood groups discuss how beneficial some changes could be for Glendale, Tuitama-Hafoka asks them to consider “what the growth also means to other people that don’t fit into that picturesque sort of ideology of what our neighborhood should look like.”

The challenge of teaching dance

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Haviar Tuitama-Hafoka, left, sings with the Malialole dance group during a performance at Jordan Park on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

Tuitama-Hafoka has also taught dance at Northwest Middle School for 13 years. Before that, he used to work in an arts program for the state’s Juvenile Justice and Youth Services.

Teaching arts to the Polynesian community has been challenging, he said, because of prejudices that often link its young people to gangs and drugs. Some kids also need a little push to learn and to grow to love the cultural aspects of performing.

“It’s not cool to do these sorts of things like dancing,” he said, “even though we utilize it so often in our culture.”

Some kids in his family are introduced to dance at a young age. It happened for Malialole, Tuitama-Hafoka’s first niece born in the U.S. and the troupe’s namesake, when she was 4 years old. In her case, being part of the ensemble was almost an unavoidable destiny.

Malialole Hafoka dances with the Malialole Dance and Entertainment group during a performance at Jordan Park on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

Now 18, she can still be found in rehearsals at the Glendale studio, where black-and-white photos of her ancestors adorn the walls, and where the voices of her grandma, Vida, and Uncle Haviar guide most of her steps.

Like many Polynesian peers, she “felt weird” about performing. But that changed when she choreographed a group of friends in high school for a multicultural showcase.

“I just realized that it was really important for me to be performing like this,” she said. “For these particular reasons, to share my culture.”

Like Tuitama-Hafoka’s hair, culture can also be presented as a gift in celebrations like birthdays or weddings and during tough times, like funerals or when someone falls ill. The community sees dance as a message from one spirit to another.

“When your spirit is talking. It speaks in a different frequency, we believe,” he said. “And that’s the purest form of yourself. And if you’re speaking in the music, it is the purest form of you speaking. So that’s why we use it.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Haviar Tuitama-Hafoka and Vida Tuitama'alelagi sing with the Malialole Dance and Entertainment group at a studio in Glendale on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.