Hey, jugglers and historians. There is an entire country of women jugglers in an Asian-Pacific island group called the Kingdon of Tonga. There are 176 islands where everyone speaks English, all women juggle, and men wouldn’t dare.
I’m on my way Feb. 1, 2015 to Tonga to visit some “Ladies of Hiko” for the second time and to continue filming the history and stories of underground goddesses, songs, chants, dances, and competitions.
The Polynesian Women have taken the 3000 year old ancient chant – the song that accompanies the Hiko – and added music and cultural dance, and they now perform in shows around the South Pacific performing Hiko.
The chant itself has many words that are not known because they are derived from the ancient Tongan language. Many say its just a counting game, but it seems much more than numbers. But then, no one knows. I’m still searching for answers.
The women also compete with Hiko. You should see these ladies challenge each other. Wowzee! Blam! Pfew! They are good, and fierce like warriors. But they always laugh HUGE at the end, when the other person drops. A winner! Joy in the play. Ahhhh, yes. (I also believe this was an official competition in the Tongan sports, but I’m still trying to confirm this.)
Polynesian Goddesses I’d say.
Strong, bold, powerful, and they have no idea why I’m interested in them. It dumbstrucks me, how humble they are.
And there are myths of Tongan Goddesses/Gods (Hikuleo), who are half male and half female, that juggle eyeballs in the underground and only in the daytime. Even to this day, the women won’t juggle at night in fear of something bad happening to them or their families.
Steve Cohen referenced this story in 1988. See http://www.juggling.org/~conway/cohen/
And they juggle 3-7 (confirmed) with the lore of up to 9 or even 11. They throw tui tui nuts in a shower pattern only. And I mean ONLY. They do not juggle any other patterns. They might juggle oranges, but mostly tui tui nuts (green lime-sized fruits) from local trees, because they are small and they can do higher numbers.
Sometimes throws are 2-3 stories high in a shower. It’s a beautiful dance with movement high in the air. And if these ladies do juggle 9 or more, then they are at world record status at this time. If 11…then this is BIG NEWS!
Bob Crossley produced a segment on Hiko in the 1980’s in his film ‘Juggle.’ In that film, he showed a woman juggling 7 nuts, a world record at the time. His film also referenced that Hiko gave more status to the women and a higher eligibility for marriage to a nobleman. I asked about this particular lore while in Tonga, and could not confirm it. In fact, the women laughed when I asked them this and said, “I wish!”
As time goes by, and the verbal history is handed down, things get lost in translation or forgotten. I found this to be true in Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, where the main historian had died, and the daughter has very little memory of Hiko and its roots.
Their juggling technique is so different from ours: in the way they catch and throw, and they move the entire time, and they just juggle until they drop.
They have no props like we know. Most have never seen juggling clubs. Three years ago, when I was there, they were completely fascinated with my clubs.
They’ve seen some juggling on TV (very little outside TV available), especially my segment when I was featured on the local Tongan TV. This helped open many doors for me. Watch the Tongan TV interview here:
This Hiko is part of their everyday life, especially as young girls. In elementary schools, the older girls play and teach the younger girls, and Hiko is one of the prime recess activities.
The women revert back to their childhood immediately when I pull out the tui tui nuts to play. And they become light and bright after their usual extreme solemn quietness. There was no eye contact before, but after they start tossing those nuts, bright happiness exudes from their pores and their eyes lighten into glowing, happy spheres.
It’s fascinating how they become alive and empowered by throwing the tui tui nuts in the air. Their animated play is transformative, and suddenly they are not the serious women with worries, kids, laundry, and chores to do. All is forgotten in the moment of Hiko play.
The Queen Salote College took the ancient chant and added music and dance to it in the 1970s in response to an Asian Pacific competition they were entering. They still perform this Hiko Dance today. Watch the Hiko Cultural Dance created from the chant:
The traditional dances all have costumes that are hand made, Hiko included.
This 3000 year old culture is untouched in many ways and still so close to the roots, but changing rapidly. They have many cultural dances, but Hiko is unusual because it evolved from the ancient culture of juggling.
That’s why I’m going to film. I must go! Trying to save Hiko somehow, at least in film and story. Technology, TV, mobile devices, and the 21st century are finally entering Tonga and on the verge of diminishing this wonderful Hiko culture.
The women of Tonga are strong, noble, tribal women, and they have no idea what talents they behold. It’s magical and inspiring beyond belief.
I am going to the smaller island groups of Ha’apai and Vava’u, to see if the verbal history may still be intact there. Hoping so, since nothing has been written down.
Connie “Paprika” Leaverton is researching the history of Hiko. Her return trip is February 1, 2015. Watch 5min video for more info.
Please go to videojuggle.com/hiko and help by donating.
Many thanks all you beautiful Tongan Jugglers! You defy more than gravity.
Some photos of Tongan culture: