MERCED — The pounding of island drums and a festive island atmosphere were on display this weekend at the Merced County Fairgrounds, as the 34th Kiki Raina Tahiti Fete entertained a diverse crowd.
Organizers estimate more than 1,500 people turned out for this year's festival, with some driving from as far away as Las Vegas and San Diego, and a few even flying in from Hawaii.
Rebecca Ka'awela Manandic, the event's organizer, started the fete in 1979. As Manandic explains it, she and some other dancers had gone to a competition in the Bay Area back then and "lost really bad."
Still, Manandic and the others were undaunted. "So we made a little competition for our dancers to train and the process worked," she said. "In those days competition was very young. It was a training competition. And then pretty soon the people from outside started coming in and beating us again. So we made a beginner category, so all our beginner/intermediate dancers could train and still compete."
Manandic estimates the festival brings in about $250,000 in revenue to the city annually, with many out-of-town visitors staying in hotels, in addition to dining and shopping revenue.
The fete, which kicked off Friday and concluded Sunday, consists of numerous dance competition events for all ages of males and females, from beginner to advanced. This year's theme was "Heritage of a People Through Music and Movement."
Many of the dancers who participate look forward to the event every year. Katelyn Schofield, 21, of Hayward said she's competed in the fete since age 14. This year, she took home a first-place trophy in the 20-24 age group category.
She practices every day, up to 15 hours per week. "Tahitian dancing is my passion, so it just makes me so happy to be on stage," she said. "I am a performer. It gives me energy. It gives me life."
Jane Alvarado of Concord, who belongs to a dance group called "Da Island Way," said she's been coming to the fete for the past 10 years. She said 22 members of her group participated in this year's fete, and nine made it to the finals. "My daughter and I compete, and we just have a good time," she said. "It's not always about winning. It's about having fun and meeting new people."
Tallon Pedregosa, 22, of Stockton has been dancing Tahitian since the age of 12 with his parent's group "Na Hoku Mai Kanoelani." Pedregosa said it took at least "three or four years" before he was able to perfect his dancing. "I give all the credit to my mom. She's the talented one," he said with a smile.
Etua Taharui, a judge from the Hawaiian island of Oahu, said this year's dancers are some of the best he's seen in 30 years at the competition. Taharui said judges always are looking at timing, choreography and costumes, to determine who will win.
"So far we have some really beautiful dancers," he said. "You fall in love with their dancing."
Manandic said the fete's dancers are the event's third generation. "I'm teaching grandchildren now. It's very exciting," she said. "We keep a lot of kids in Merced busy -- kids who sometimes need that family connection. ... We adopt not only kids, but a lot of people who are missing something in their life find it here with us."
She said next year's event, the 35th anniversary, is expected to be even bigger.
The fete is regarded as the oldest Tahitian festival outside the island of Tahiti. The first-place winners in the older age categories each receive $100.
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or email@example.com.