Last fall, when Sarah Mendoza posted a video of her fellow dancers from Te Varua Ori on Facebook, she simply wanted to promote the decade-old troupe by showing their regular warm-up routine.
The clip features members of the Southern California-based Tahitian dance group practicing the tifene —sometimes referred to as a “duck walk” — a quadriceps-scorching move where dancers squat and balance on the balls of their feet.
"When I arrive here, there’s a magic that happens. To be part of this community, this ensemble, this cast of talented men and women, it kind of allows me to forget the daily grind."
Against the thunderous rhythm of Tahitian drumming in the background, some dancers move forward in a straight line while others spin in place, all while simultaneously gyrating their hips, gently gesturing with their hands and arms, and maintaining wide smiles on their faces.
All ori Tahiti dancers learn it; it’s a fundamental move, like the relevé in ballet. And to Mendoza, it epitomizes Tahitian dance, a combination of both grace and athleticism.
“I am constantly challenged by perfecting the tifene,” Mendoza, Te Varua Ori’s marketing and social media manager, told NBC News. “Whenever I see our advanced dancers perform it during warm-up or during our routines, I’m simply amazed. It’s not a move that ever gets quote-unquote ‘easy,’ but they do it with such grace and poise.”
Little did she know, the video would go viral on Facebook, generating more than 33 million views to date and growing their fan base internationally. Even more special: the video picked up steam shortly after the group celebrated its 10th anniversary on Sept. 1, 2016.
Co-founder and lead instructor, Angela Liava’a, a 20-year practitioner of Tahitian dance, started Te Varua Ori (TVO) with three other dancers. She estimates the group’s membership now hovers around 200 with dancers of various ethnicities and ages, ranging from 5 to 60 years old.
They have performed sold-out shows at the City National Grove of Anaheim and regularly place at regional competitions.
Liava’a, 29, first fell in love with the art form growing up in Anaheim, California, where she saw a local group perform; she considers herself a lifelong student of ori, or “dance,” a role she takes especially seriously because she is not of Polynesian descent.
“I’m not Tahitian. I don’t claim to be; I’m not. But being that I’ve fallen in love with this culture, it’s our jobs as instructors to continue to learn and to continue to display this culture — that’s not mine — to the best I can,” Liava’a, who identifies as Filipina, white, and Latina, told NBC News.
Her husband, Kalisi Liava’a — who is of Tongan and Samoan descent — echoes her concerns over being viewed as appropriating Tahitian culture. Kalisi co-owns the company with his wife and leads the live music ensemble that accompanies dancers when they practice and perform, doing traditional Tahitian drumming, composing original music, and singing in Tahitian.
“I have to work just as hard because then it’ll come down on me, too, like, ‘You’re Polynesian, you should get this.’ Even though we teach, we’re still students. We’re always students,” he told NBC News.
So, the group felt especially honored when they were invited by leaders in the Tahitian dance community to perform on the famed To’ata stage in Papeete, Tahiti, in 2012, following a first place finish at Hura Tahiti, a regional competition.
The group returned to perform in 2015 and plan to make another trip in 2018. TVO’s dedication to the craft has not only garnered them awards in the U.S. but also abroad, like when member Josh Mercado, 27, earned second place at the 2016 Ori Tahiti World Cup.
“With this group there’s something about the energy, with Angela specifically, that is infectious. She has a way with just dancing, but when she teaches her students she really inspires them, sparks something,” Mercado told NBC News.
“Te varua ori” translates to “spirit of dance,” but according to Angela Liava’a and her students, it’s the group’s spirit of family that makes TVO unique.
“When I arrive here, there’s a magic that happens. To be part of this community, this ensemble, this cast of talented men and women, it kind of allows me to forget the daily grind,” Marites Olano, 40, told NBC News. Olano, who works in social media marketing and is a mother of two, commutes up to two hours each way to dance with TVO every week.
Thanks to the success of the viral video, Liava’a has been able to share ori around the U.S. and the world: She and her husband recently taught a sponsored workshop outside Atlanta, Georgia. According to Liava’a, some dancers traveled 10-hours by car to attend, while others flew in from neighboring cities.
“All of these ladies were so hungry to learn, and we were just so blown away that people wanted to travel to see us. I was like, “Why?” They thought I would make them practice tifene,” Liava’a said with a laugh (she didn’t).
"Even though we teach, we’re still students. We’re always students."
They will travel next to Mexico, Virginia, and North Carolina to teach similar workshops, and TVO recently performed on nationally syndicated entertainment show “Hollywood Today Live.”
As for the troupe’s next 10 years, Liava’a says the goal is to not grow in number but in the spirit in which she founded the company: to create a place where dancers — of all shapes, ethnicities, and ages — can find a home.
“I love seeing [the dancers] fall in love and work hard. And I love seeing the not-so-confident guys and girls be comfortable in their skin and to feel like, ‘I didn’t feel comfortable at first, but now I feel beautiful,’” she said. “Our goal for the next 10 years is to create a safe environment for people to belong and to be part of a family. That’s it.”