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Visiting Hawaii is more than just a trip into the Hawaiian culture; it is a chance to experience many ancient Polynesian cultures still thriving today. A fascinating glimpse into the Samoan culture can be had through a performance unlike any other called ‘ailao afi, the Samoan fireknife dance. It’s a modern innovation and celebration of ancient battle gestures of victory. The ancient battles were fought with hand-held wooden weapons called nifo oti, which means “deadly tooth.”

The lightweight nifo oti was used like a hacking sword. Some wooden swords or clubs had boar tusks or shark teeth attached, while others had sharp teeth carved into the edges. This was eventually combined with another Samoan weapon, the lave, or hook, which was used to snare various body parts of an enemy.

As warfare faded with modern times, the nifo oti became an important element in the Samoan ta’alolo or gift-giving procession that honors special visitors. Young Samoans are credited with developing the twirling motions and dance into its own art form over the years. They modified the knife by using two and even three knives simultaneously with chrome blades and reshaping the hook. In 1946, a young Samoan man, Uluao Letuli from Nuuuli, American Samoa, entertaining in San Francisco became known as the “father” of modern Samoan fireknife dancing when he added flaming pads to each end of the nifo oti. Letuli’s dancing became extremely popular. He performed and taught all the early fireknife dancers, including the Polynesian Cultural Center’s retired Director of Cultural Islands, Pulefano Galea’i, who originated the PCC’s annual World Fire Knife Dance Competition in 1993.

Old Samoan traditions say that the knife dance was originally done to rhythmic chants or songs, but today drumming on a variety of ancient and modern instruments accompanies each Samoan fireknife dance. There were traditional rhythms for various types of Samoan dances and activities, but like the instruments, today’s fireknife dancers use a variety of rapid beats that allude to other Polynesian island influences. You can learn more about this ancient dance and see it live at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu:

nifo oti — deadly tooth, handheld weapon.

lave — hook — a Samoan weapon used to snare various body parts of an enemy.
‘ailao — knife dance.

mo’emo’e — running movements— traditionally indicated victory in battle.
foot stomping — a sign of challenge or intimidation.
gego — head movements —warriors used to confuse their enemies.
olioli —other movements traditionally used to distract enemies included rolling the knife around the neck, through the legs and around the ankles, and around the back.
folifoli — movements leading up to a strike.
lavalava — wrap-around that dancers wear. They tie it up and tuck like a swimming suit, so no hanging ends snag or hamper the twirling of the nifo oti.

Pate — slit-log drum gouged out of a section of tree branch, only a foot or two in length and easily carried by hand.

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