"Joining this family has been life changing for me," says Rachel Oliveros about Tahitian dance group To'erau Manu Rahi, which Oliveros as well as her three children are members of.
This family-friendly atmosphere of To'erau is a leading component as to why the group has grown from twelve members to more than 150 in less than three years.
“They like to include everybody in everything, even if it’s not dance related,” says Kim Turner, mother of sixteen-year-old Vanessa Caluya. “Everyone in the group is always there for one another, lending a helping hand whenever needed.”
Now with great experience and more exposure, the To'erau family will be attending its first out-of-state competition - the Heiva I Honolulu - hosted by Tahiti Nui International, from March 21 to 23 at the Waikiki Shell.
"The creation of To'erau was by a random decision that me and my brother, Erik, made," says To'erau director and co-founder Crystal Boquiren. "One day we sat down and decided to just go for it. The next day we went out and got a business license, and within two weeks, we were set."
Though the group developed in such a short amount of time, the combined history and experience of the Boquirens catalyzed the strength and foundation of the group.
Though he started out at age nine as a dancer for Tahitian dance company Te Mana O Te Ra in Walnut Creek, California, Erik soon became absorbed in drumming.
“I eventually became the music director for Hui Tama Nui (in Vallejo, California) where we won multiple first place music, first place drumming, and ‘best overall group’ awards at the San Jose Tahiti Fete and Heiva I Reno competitions,” says Erik, who is now in charge of concept design for productions, composing and arranging original drum beats and songs, and male choreography for To’erau.
Known for his not-so-typical Tahitian drum teaching style, Erik’s students have established a nickname for their leader.
“They like to call me the ‘bad cop’ for my aggressive teaching and instruction with influences from being in and teaching marching percussion,” says Erik, who was a member-turned-instructor for award-winning drumlines at Springstowne Middle School and Jesse Bethel High School, both in Vallejo, California.
With mostly word-of-mouth advertising and support from the Boquirens' mentors - Sam Almira and Lisa Aguilar - To'erau has made it a point to continue traditions and appropriately represent the Tahitian culture.
“Sam Almira has been very supportive. He recognized the talent and pushed us,” says Crystal about the well-known Tahitian drummer who has been deemed “The Godfather” and is founder of award-winning group Hui Tama Nui. “He makes sure we have appropriate material and represent the culture respectfully.”
Crystal’s experience began as early as the age of ten when she became a member of Te Mana O Te Ra. Much of her growth as a member of the Tahitian dance community has come from the group’s leader, Lisa Aguilar.
“She's made a huge impact on me and Erik, and we owe a lot of our success to her,” says Crystal.
After being a dancer for many years, Crystal eventually became a music director for Hui Tama Nui, where she worked with long-time Tahitian dance frontrunner, the Sencil family.
“Aaron [Sencil] completely changed the game, like how Bruce Lee did Kung Fu,” says Jeff Sencil, former drummer of the Kalihi Dancers, about Hui Tama Nui’s direction shift from traditional to modern, yet still keeping the cultural spirit alive.
It was much later during this change that Hui Tama Nui took a break and To’erau found its own birth in January 2010.
Crystal’s motivation to teach and to share the family bond of To’erau is the reason why, despite the many intense hours of rehearsal and preparation, she continues to build her group.
“I love when students have an immense passion to do well. They are always hungry to learn more and want to do better,” says Crystal. “Those students really inspire me and motivate me to become the teacher that I am, and make me love what I do.”
For Turner’s daughter, Vanessa, To’erau was a much needed group for those dance members who had taken a break.
“She [Vanessa] had always wanted to go back to dancing. We knew that Crystal and her brother had formed their own halau (dance group), because they used to sing/dance/drum in our former group,” says Turner. “We also knew they had the experience needed to run and maintain a successful halau. Plus, several other girls Vanessa had danced with from our old group joined TMR.”
Since 2010, the group has competed and/or performed at the Kiki Raina Tahiti Fete, Manahere, San Jose Tahiti Fete, Na Maka, Heiva I Reno, and Te Aranui.
Prior to competition, months and months of preparation are involved. From the music composition to the last-minute changes on the day of a show, the Boquirens not only manage the members, they open their home and hearts to members who need them the most.
“There are always people in our house,” says Crystal. We’re always spending time with each other, whether it be bowling or grocery shopping.”
But when it’s time to work, production begins on a blank canvas with Crystal and Erik deciding on a theme. Once a theme is in place, there is a blueprint of which piece will go in which spot.
“In Tahitian culture, it’s all about making sure that we follow the legend appropriately,” says Crystal, who looks to Sam Almira for guidance in designing a show.
Following the theme, songwriting takes place – a task that can sometimes take only an hour to do, but about two weeks to teach.
“Me and my brother just sit and go for it,” says Crystal, who focuses on the vocal aspect and arrangement of a piece. “Whatever comes out becomes a song.”
“When writing songs, it normally starts with my sister providing lyrics that are translated in English so we could see if it’s a ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ song, or a song about love or nature. Then, see what kind of chord progression to make, either a minor or major chord progression. From there, we start humming melodies, and the rest is history,” says Erik. “The type of music we play has a very jazzy and R&B feel, but we still stay true to traditional Tahitian music, to give it kind of a fusion.”
Under the direction of Crystal and Erik, there are other instructors who help bring out and preserve the Tahitian culture for this 150+ member group.
Malia Villanueva instructs the children, Jiusten Santos instructs the men, Danilo Calingo assists as drum instructor, and Jerwyn Sendaydiego and Joseph Sai design the costumes.
“It's fun and wonderful to watch, especially knowing all the time, energy, and hard work that go into making the group successful,” says Turner about the show design from beginning to end.
In addition, there are many parents of family members, such as Turner, who have helped and continue to do so simply out of the love and dedication that has become recognized by other groups.
“We really, really have a unique, close-knit bond. We even get noticed for how positive and supportive we are of each other by the Tahitian community,” says Crystal. “Like all families, we argue, but we argue in person instead of talking behind each other’s back. It makes us stronger to become even more positive. It’s unconditional.”
And it is this distinct bond that has drawn the attention of many parents to have their children become part of such a dynamic group.
“To’erau Manu Rahi is definitely one of a kind. They are such a warm and friendly group of people that care so much about each other,” says Eileen Madayag, mother of six-year-old dancer Reese Madayag. “We were looking for a group that was very family-oriented and kid-friendly, but most of all, patient and welcoming with beginners. Crystal and Erik are great leaders that offer the best support and guidance. We could not ask for a better family to be part of.”
Positive leadership skills have brought the Boquirens much familial success. Their welcoming demeanor has not only been a deciding factor for children to join, but the children’s parents, as well.
“It’s always a good feeling to see all of the families make memories that last lifetimes,” says Erik.
“We have so many mothers dancing with their children, it's an amazing feeling,” says Oliveros, who used to dance when she was younger, and has now returned to share in the experience. “When I introduced my children to the culture, they took it and showed appreciation, love, and respect for it. This is what they love to dance and it’s great that we can all share it together.”
Oliveros’ children are eleven-year-old Josiah Rillera, six-year-old Mariah Oliveros-Nau, and three-year-old Caliyah Oliveros-Nau.
Of the three, two of them will be part of the Heiva I Honolulu competition. Mariah will be competing in the Solo Category, while Caliyah will be performing in exhibition.
“Mariah, who is only six years old, has definitely made her mark in the Tahitian community. She won first place last year,” says Crystal.
First place is no stranger to To’erau. Thirteen-year-old dancer Darien Panday has won in every single competition he has entered.
“He always wins first or second place,” says Crystal. “Last year he won the Overall Category (meaning he was the best in the entire competition), in which he competed against over 400 people.”
Though there can only be one first place winner in every category, the parents of To’erau members see their children winning every day.
“To’erau has taught her to be more disciplined and to try harder to accomplish her goals,” says Turner about daughter Vanessa. “It also has and is, still teaching her to be more confident and to push herself more.”
For Oliveros, her children have learned the true meaning of respect and love.
“My children have become some of the strongest children I know by being part of such a great family as To'erau Manu Rahi,” says Oliveros. “My family has gained such a new meaning to life by being surrounded by such a great group of people that allows everyone to be a part of. Everyone is treated equally no matter your age, shape, or size. If you dance with your heart, that is all that is ever expected. Our ra'atiras (teachers) Crystal and Erik, provide us with a chance at a lot of things that seem, to many, impossible or unreachable.”
Success in every form has been awarded to this tight-knit group of dancers, musicians, and parents. The weekly rehearsals, show design, costume making, fundraising, and so much more, have brought them to a point in their development where the possibilities are limitless.
“Last year, it was not in my thoughts that we would be able to travel to Hawaii to participate in Heiva I Honolulu, but here we are!” says Crystal.
With a history embedded in the Tahitian culture, and a fresh take on songwriting, the To’erau family hopes to one day bring its talent to Tahiti, but this year, Honolulu welcomes To’erau with much appreciation and respect.
Their name alone, has spoken volumes to those who have followed. To’erau Manu Rahi translates to “Great Birds of the North Winds”, a fitting label for a group that continues to move forward and exemplify positive action.
“We chose a name that signified strength. ‘To’erau’ comes from a sense of new life and strength in the new generation,” says Crystal. “‘Manu’ means bird, and birds are closest to the heavens. They’re known for having the eyes of God.”
And strength in a family bond is what has kept this group motivated to lead every member down a righteous path.
“It is a huge stepping stone for what’s to come,” says Erik about the Heiva I competition.
Though nothing may be set for the future as far as competitions and productions, “one thing that I can guarantee is that we will still be ‘utuafare’,” says Crystal.