Polynesian culture is an easy fit for Fort Lauderdale. It's a city long associated with leisure that came into its own around the same time as the newfound middle class found fascination in the late '50s and early '60s with tiki idols, puffer fish, and the natives of the Pacific Islands.
Such things can be easily chalked off to retro kitsch or considered the province of pop artist Shag and certain custom car enthusiasts, yet for others, there's an allure that emanates from that far-flung chain of islands where isolated civilizations thrived for centuries using nothing more than their strength and a profound respect for land and water.
Nearly every major city in the U.S. has a dimly lit bar or two adorned in thatch and rattan and green and red navigation lamps, from L.A.'s Tonga Hut to our own world-famous Mai-Kai and the latest addition, Five Points Lounge, in the shadow of Port Everglades south of downtown.
The well-appointed South Seas-themed bar proved to be an ideal location for the performance by Polynesian Proud Productions, a locally based troupe of dancers and performers with roots in the islands who brought an early kickoff to Hukilau weekend in Fort Lauderdale with what troupe founder Talani calls "the authentic Polynesian experience."
Though Five Points lacks a full liquor license and thus precludes the serving of mai tais and Zombies craft beer, sangria and margaritas made with wine-based rum were available, with many sipping them from plastic and ceramic tiki mugs on floral print bamboo sofas or at the bar beneath luminous green and orange globes as Hawaiian influenced pop music played on the overhead speakers.
"It's fun, it's relaxing; it just puts you in a good mood," Gina from Fort Lauderdale says of Polynesian culture. "It goes into music and crafts and the arts. It's just nice to see people who take so much pride in their culture."
The long-running floor show at the Mai-Kai has its own sort of touristy charm, but the performance by Polynesian Proud was a much more serious matter, the bare-chested men wearing red pareu (the wraparound skirt worn by males) with palm fronds ringing their ankles and heads and the young women in red grass skirts and hipbands and elaborate headdresses.
The women moved with swaying grace to the driving, pounding percussion from the nearby drummers as the men stomped in determined syncopation to the beat, trading cries and top-of-the-lung call-and-response in their native language.
"I wanna live in Hawaii," a younger fellow said as he watched the rapid-fire shaking of the barefoot dancers' hips, accentuated by the plume of their rustling hipbands. A middle-ager on one of the couches dressed conservatively in brown slacks and a button down simply nodded to the music with his eyes closed and half a smile on his face.
After several clothing changes as the dances and music of the various islands were demonstrated the troupe returned in the traditional dress of Samoa, each of them carrying a blazing nifo afi (fire knife), the bitter, greasy smell of citronella and the dry heat from the torch heads filling the bar as they returned to the stage.
"Hey, those are the sprinklers," a bartender exclaimed as the women held their torches precariously close to the fire sprinklers protruding from the ceiling rushing quickly to the stage for a closer look. No deluge occurred as one at a time the men twirled their fire knives around their bare chests, over their shoulders and between their legs to the music, their sweat slicked faces squeezed in concentration and at one point a performer balancing a nifo afi that burned at each end on his upturned feet as he passed another repeatedly under his arched back as he lay on the stage.
Fire, drums, and good-looking people with islander features are surefire ways to engage an audience. Polynesian Proud was rewarded with enthusiastic applause from the modest crowd as the last torch was extinguished and struck one final pose on the stage, the women smiling radiantly and the men with their faces fixed.
We caught up with Polynesia Proud owner Talani on the sidewalk in front of the bar. He's a bald, heavyset man wearing a red shirt with giant beads around his neck who spoke reverently of his Samoan heritage and considers the success of the show Survivor as the reason behind the recent mainstream interest in Polynesian culture.
"People see the hula girls and the exotic paradise and the good times and the exotic drinks but the unknown is something people embrace," he says. A black Toyota pulls to a stop in front of Five Points and one of the female performers now dressed in street clothes passes a handful of eggs to a tall, athletically built male performer named Dennis who takes them over to a curbside table. I then notice that the webbing between the thumb and index finger on his right hand is badly burned and a white and gray flap of skin is hanging loosely near the palm, revealing a swath of angry pink flesh beneath. The girls share a few words with Talani before leaving as Dennis tries awkwardly to extract the whites into a cup to treat his burn.
"A little souvenir," Talani remarks casually as Dennis begins pouring the egg whites over the wound. Dennis merely shrugs.
"Reminds me I'm human."
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