Most elementary school students don’t wear a “puletasi” or “lavalava” to school, but a group of Kent Elementary School students don the traditional Samoan clothes every year to teach their classmates about their culture.
Pacific Islanders — mostly American Samoans — make up the second largest ethnic group at diverse Kent Elementary, and they have brought their culture to the school’s Multicultural Fair in the form of dance for the last four years.
The group started when Kent Elementary administrators were organizing the school’s first Multicultural Fair. They recognized the need to represent the school’s relatively large population of Pacific Islanders and were pleased to find several parents who wanted to help reach the same goal.
Coordinated by those parents and Kent Elementary teacher Michelle Kelly, the group has now grown to more than 30 students who annually perform traditional dances for the school community.
“What began as the promise of a few kids doing a few dances turned into a spectacular production,” Kelly said. “I think my favorite part about this is that it gets them really excited each year. This is a great way for them to share their culture.”
The teacher said the Samoan group is a favorite at the annual fair. This year they were even asked to dance at Neely-O’Brien Elementary School’s multicultural event May 29.
Each year, the students wear Samoan clothes, the girls in “puletasi” dresses and the boys in headbands and “lavalava” cloths around their waists. The boys go shirtless to show off tattoos usually drawn onto their arms and chests by parents.
The group of students ages 6-12 perform about five different dances, each with its own story. Dances like the “Haka” — a dance to scare away enemies and frighten evil spirits — and the “Sasa” — a welcoming dance of happiness — are among the regular routine.
“What I like about these dances is that I get to show the audience who we are and what we do and show our culture,” said fifth-grader Sai Ta’amu, 11.
Ta’amu’s grandparents were born in Samoa, and he has grown up with a healthy dose of his heritage, he said. He has been participating in traditional Samoan has danced at his church since the age of 5, but last year he learned about the opportunity to show his culture at school.
He said he jumped at the chance to join the group.
“I think it’s very important,” Ta’amu said. “I think people should learn about more cultures than just their own.”
The student now acts as the “Faluma” in the “Haka” and “Sasa” dances, the leader who calls out orders and directs the group’s movements. His uncle and father are among those parents who sometimes join in to sing or play instruments.
Fifth-grader Ana Molia’s father also joins in the performances, often playing the drums while the students dance. She said her favorite dance is the “Siva,” an all-girls dance that the “Taupou,” the princess, leads.
“It’s just the girls showing what they can do,” she said.
Molia has been dancing with the group for four years, and she said it makes her proud of her culture.
“I like to do this because now everyone from our school knows that we’re Samoans,” the student said. “Every year that I’ve been here, people thought our dance was the best. That’s why they save us for last.”