A line of girls, 13 to 15 years old, swayed and moved to the beat of drums, wearing colorful skirts and opulent headdresses of red feathers, flowers, straw and seashells Friday afternoon at the Merced County Fairgrounds.
The girls were trying to show the judges their individual dance moves in hopes of moving on in the competition later today.
Girls and boys of all ages competed in solo competitions while five judges sat in front of the stage and picked the winners. All the dancers, musicians, parents and festival-goers were in Merced for the 33rd annual Kiki Raina Tahiti Fete.
Event organizers estimate that, over the weekend, it will draw as many as 1,200 people from all over the state and nation. It's the oldest Tahitian festival outside of Tahiti, according to festival producer Rebecca Manandic, who goes by Aunty Becky.
Tahiti is an archipelago, or a group of islands, in the South Pacific Ocean between South America and Australia.
"California has the largest group of Polynesians outside the islands," Manandic said. The festival started as a way to teach the girls to dance at other festivals, she said. Those other festivals are now defunct. According to Manandic, Merced's festival is the only one around that includes beginner categories for each of the nine age groups.
"We're family-oriented. We teach our children our ways," she said.
The festival started in Atwater, moved to Turlock and made its home in Merced in 1994.
The Tahitian dance, called "Tahiti Ori," tells the history of the people, Manandic said. "They didn't have written language a long time ago, this[ (dance]) tells their story," she added.
The participants range in age from 4 to 35 and older.
It was the second year competing for Ellayla Quidit, 12, who was walking outside the Commerce Center with her friend Kiana Sunga, 11. Quidit made her headdress and chest piece herself, adorning them with seashells. She's been performing Tahitian dance for the past five years.
"It's something we wanted to do," said Quidit, who is a Filipina.
The festival also sells island food, crafts and flowers. Manandic said she thought there would be fewer attendees because of the weak economy, but that hasn't turned out to be the case.
Erik Boquiren, who came from Vallejo, was practicing the drums with his group, To'erau Manu Rahi, which means "birds of the north winds," outside the Commerce Center. The group, which is from the Bay Area, is scheduled to play in the soloists' competition.
Boquiren, who danced when he was a boy, said he's been attending the festival for the past 16 years. "My dancing days are long over," Boquiren, 24, said with a laugh.
The drumming competition begins later today.
Xyla Guerrero, 13, and her brother Xavier, 17, came from Stockton to compete. Xyla was at the competition with her group, Tamarii Mataeria, which means "children of Huahine," an island where the group originated, she said.
Xyla, who has been practicing her solo for about a month, said she tries to show the judges how graceful she is and how good her "faarapu," or hip-shaking, dance move is. "I like (dancing) because we get to learn somebody else's culture and present it and meet a lot of people," she said.
The Kiki Raina Tahiti Fete continues today and Sunday at the Merced County Fairgrounds, 900 Martin Luther King Junior Way. For more information, see the event's website, www.kikiraina.com.
Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.