The longest existing festival of its kind outside Tahiti, the annual Tahiti Fete hosted in Merced is on the calendar for March 18, 19 and 20 this year.
Coordinator Rebecca “Aunty Becky” Manandic said for most of its more than 35 years, it has been hosted in Merced, though the festival of dance and competition started in Atwater, moved briefly to Turlock and then found its permanent home in Merced.
“It has always been in the 209,” Manandic said of the fest, now in its 37th year. “We miss our homeland, that’s why we dance.”
Manandic pointed out that California has the highest population of Polynesian Islanders outside the islands.
Manandic was born and raised on the island of Oahu. Her first local Polynesian dance troupe was Ke Anuenue, which means ‘The Rainbow’ in Hawaiian. At the time it was the first such group in the Central Valley.
The festival can trace its roots in California to one that started in Sacramento and then moved to Fort Mason in San Francisco, where it drew an estimated 5,000 people annually. Manandic said the idea behind starting a Tahiti Fete for the 209 was to introduce competitive dance to the region.
“The Kiki Raina Tahiti Fete is the longest existing, annually held, Tahitian dance and cultural festival outside of French Polynesia and we are celebrating our 37th consecutive year,” said Manandic. “Come to the event to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of Tahiti. Our event features a dance competition with people entering from all ranges and performing to live musicians and drums.”
The weekend will also feature Polynesian craft booths and Island-style food for sale.
“I got here in 1975, ended up teaching dance,” added Manandic, noting that it wasn’t too long after that she decided to start her own show with an Island flair.
“We did it first as an educational thing, we started a little one in Atwater and our first group was mostly for our kids to begin learning the process of competition,” she explained. “Before long, people came; the next year people came, hearing we had this little Tahiti Fete.
“By the time we moved to Turlock, we had changed the format, so it had Beginner and Advanced competitions, Beginner for those who had only danced for two or three years, Advanced for those who had been dancing a long time.”
Golden Valley High School in Merced is the host site for this year’s Tahiti Fete.
Friday, March 18 will see events beginning at 5 p.m. and running through 10 p.m. and include both the Masters and Grand Masters categories competing, as well as the Ahuroa, a synchronized dance “performed by elegantly dressed women” to a sung Tahitian narrative. Rounding out the Friday events is a Maeva Merced Pageant, with young men, women and children competing for the titles to represent the festivities.
Saturday, the fun starts at 9 a.m. with solo dancers taking the stage, beginner and professional, men and women.
Age range, said Manandic, is from four to “as long as they can continue to shimmy.” Younger dancers too young to compete will perform in a showcase during lunch break and there will be group drumming for the afternoon.
Sunday brings more dancing, including solo and duet, with competition for the overall best dancer awards, male and female.
Groups from San Diego, several from San Francisco, and a number from Stockton are all expected to travel to the Tahiti Fete to compete.
Tickets are $15 advanced sale for ages 13 to adult, $17 at the door. Children, 5 through 12, advance sale tickets are $13, cost is $15 at the door and a three-day pass (advanced sale only) is $40 for adults, $30 for children. Saturday and Sunday festival hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Tickets are limited; call 209-383-1435 and leave a message or go towww.kikiraina.com
Golden Valley High School is at 2121 E. Childs Ave., Merced.
“We get competitors from all over California, sometimes people come from Hawaii, and the judges come from Hawaii and Tahiti,” said Manandic. “They are very qualified; they know exactly what they are doing.”
She added that the festival typically brings in 1,500 people per day, perhaps more, to the venue.
“We bring a quarter million dollars to Merced on that weekend, so Merced does love us,” she said, chuckling.
The music, dance and drumming is the backdrop for the fest, but the craft booths featuring Island items and the authentic food is also a big draw. And at the end of the day, Manandic said it’s really about passing on the tradition of dance, the love of competition and the knowledge about how to represent.
“We are more an educational venue, we do this to help other groups learn how to go on to competition,” Manandic said. “Our purpose truly is to maintain traditional dance and teach how to compete.”
Thirty-seven years strong, the future of the Tahiti Fete seems secure as well.
“I see these people year after year, we are in our third generation,” Manandic said of attendees and competitors. “I truly love passing on the knowledge; this is my island family here in California.”