eight dancers in Rozita Lee's Drums of the Islands revue are worried
about my addition to their troupe, which performs at the twice-weekly
Imperial Palace luau.
"Once in a while, when it rains, we have to cut the show and give free coupons out for the next show," says dancer Foi Tuitama.
"We might have to give out some coupons tonight."
The two-hour poolside performance spotlights cultures from the five
sets of islands -- Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa and New Zealand -- that
most of the cast members can trace their ancestries to.
"We have never had a non-Polynesian dancer in the show in 17 years,"
Tuitama said earlier. (My Jewish friends and I sometimes refer to one
another as members of the tribe. But I don't think that counts.)
I am to portray a warrior from the Maori, the first known human
residents of New Zealand. A traditional pui pui skirt hugs my hips and
my face is adorned with swirls, called ta moko, that would normally
identify my clan (and be carved into my skin with sharp bone instead of
drawn on with MAC eyeliner).
Although I have rehearsed dozens of times, that doesn't matter.
"Normally, we would have new dancers train for two months before we
let them onstage," said Tuitama, who is half Maori and half Samoan,
"and it takes them at least another four months after that before
they're considered comfortable."
Tuitama, 44, was born in New Zealand and moved to Samoa with his
family when he was 6. His father was a Samoan chief -- and not just the
"He instilled in me pride in both my cultures," Tuitama said. "He
always taught me that it's important to represent the culture you
belong to. And if you cannot do a good job, don't do it."
The drums signaling my portion of the show begin beating. Rozita
Lee's daughter, a dancer named Xanna, darts into the poolside dressing
room with a can of spray tan.
"You can't go out looking like that," she says.
Two minutes later, the can is empty but no dent has been made in my resemblance to a snowdrift.
"You need to go," Xanna says.
Joining the line in the middle, I climb the stairs at the side of
the stage to behold the stares facing it. We begin our pre-dance chant,
"Ka Mate" ("to the death"), and a woman in front who is eating huli
huli chicken stops chewing entirely.
The tribal dance, or haka, we're about to perform is a series of arm
and leg twists, jabs and jumps whose intricacy reminds me of the moves
I learned to become a Chippendale. Only there is no fly to unzip at the
"This is not a joke," Tuitama said earlier.
Hakas were originally danced to psyche warriors up for battle. They
involve rolling of the eyes and Gene Simmons-like tongue activity.
"It's like a stare-down," Tuitama said. "You scare off the other
side. Sometimes the hakas were so bloody and fierce that the other
warriors decided not to fight them."
The last hakas to be danced for real were against European settlers
in a series of 19th-century uprisings the Maori refer to as "White
Needless to say, they didn't work. Nowadays, hakas are danced to psyche audience members up for the buffet line.
"It's mostly ancient history," said Tuitama, "although in the last
20 years, there's been a strong rebirth of pushing the younger
generation to accept and practice our cultures."
Of his four sons, Tuitama said three are fire dancers.
"They learned like I did -- at family gatherings," Tuitama said.
"You've got all your cousins and uncles all getting together, and you
prepare for months."
Tuitama started dancing professionally at the Polynesian Culture
Center in Hawaii, while attending college. When he arrived in Las Vegas
in 1990, construction provided a stable day job. (He currently clocks
in at Stewart & Sundell.)
"But word just got around about my dancing," he said.
Tuitama was immediately hired as a fire dancer at the Tropicana and,
after answering an ad, joined the Drums of the Islands when it began at
the Imperial Palace in 1991.
"My culture is something that I love, and I enjoy sharing it with people who come to see us," Tuitama said.
Drums of the Islands dancers earn $75 to $200 per night.
Earlier, Tuitama remembered the troupe's biggest onstage embarrassments.
"I remember my fire getting out of hand and flames burning up the
stage," he said. (Near the end of the show, Tuitama portrays a Samoan
Then there was the time the hotel lost power.
"We had to do half the show without electrical instruments," he said. "It's a good thing we had drums."
Another night, a dancer reported for work drunk and fell off the stage.
"I mean, he hit the ground," Tuitama said.
Surprisingly, the latest entry to Tuitama's list does not occur
tonight. OK, so I resemble the lost member of KISS -- and I'm
constantly watching the others to remind me of my next move -- but I
damn near nail the routine. (When I withdraw my head from the middle of
Peni Lave's legs at the end, causing him to wince in pain, that's
actually part of the regular script.)
"Ladies and gentlemen, we take a very short explanation at this time," Lee announces.
But even before she reveals me as a reporter, people are applauding.
"I have to admit, we had a bet to see if you could get through it or
make a complete fool of yourself," Tuitama says afterward. "But you
proved us wrong.
"You represented your tribe well."
Watch video of Levitan as a Maori warrior at
www.lvrj.com/columnists/Corey_Levitan.html. Fear and Loafing runs the
first Sunday of every month in the Living section. Levitan's previous
entries are posted at fearandloafing.com. If you have a Fear and
Loafing idea, e-mail email@example.com or call (702) 383-0456.