Over 5,000 people overflowed the ‘Atele Indoor Stadium to welcome Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Tonga with an evening of traditional music and dance.
3,000 of those were the performers themselves—youth members of the Church, ages 12-18, from all fourteen stakes on the island of Tongatapu—who had been rehearsing and making authentic costumes for the previous month in anticipation of this night.
The evening was billed as a “Cultural Celebration” and was broadcast live over Tongan Radio 89.5 FM and 88.6 FM. Crews manned six video cameras to display the proceedings by closed-circuit television on two large screens inside the stadium and on monitors set up inside a large tent for the overflow crowd. The entire event was recorded and broadcast the following night on Tongan Television. Newspapers and online media also published stories over the next few days.
Elder Andersen was accompanied by his wife, Sister Kathy Andersen; and by Elder James J. Hamula, President of the Church’s Pacific Area; and his wife, Sister Joyce Hamula.
Six companies of dancers, musicians, and singers each took a turn performing on the main floor of the stadium before a raised, decorated platform where the visitors and other honored guests sat.
On the stand with the Andersens and the Hamulas were Lord Tu’ivakano, the Prime Minister of Tonga; Lord Fakafanua, Speaker of the House; Dr. Mark Talbot, the New Zealand High Commissioner; Bronya Cranswick, the Acting Australia High Commissioner; and others.
The first group performed the Ma’ulu’ulu Fakaha’apai (Sitting/Standing Dance). The particular version of the dance performed that night came from the Ha’apai islands, which were recently devastated by Cyclone Ian. It was done to honor the strength and commitment of the people of Ha’apai.
The narrator noted that one beauty of this dance is the ‘oneness’ of the performers and reminded the audience that although people may come from different backgrounds, they all come together as children of a loving Heavenly Father.
The Kailao (Warrior Dance) is a vigorous, athletic portrayal of various manoeuvres to protect and defend. This was likened to the fight to defend family and home against the evils of the world.
The Lakalaka (Standing Dance), which literally means to walk briskly, should remind the viewer to not just walk, but to walk briskly, in the footsteps of the Savior and to hasten the work of salvation.
The ‘Otumotu (Island Dance) tells about travels to the smaller islands of Tonga. The narrator commented that each individual is important in the eyes of God, and that Tonga, which is just a dot of the map of the world, is important to Him. She added that, “He knows every one of us.”
The Soke (Stick Dance) depicts ancient travel between the islands with steep waves and harsh storms. The narrator told the crowd that if they put on the whole armor of God, they can endure the storms of life.
The grand finale was titled, Tau’olunga, Mako and Joseph Smith Lakalaka. It included a special Lakalaka of the Restoration of the Gospel. The narrator commented that the gospel challenges every youth to come unto Christ.
The six dances covered a range of styles and types. Some were graceful, others were athletic. The music was an important part of each performance and praise should be given to the musicians and singers of each company. The drummers may have been as athletic as the dancers were in some of the numbers.
The evening ended with remarks by the Prime Minister and by Elder Andersen.
The Prime Minister reminded the crowd of Tonga’s Four Golden Threads: a deep sense of respect (faka’apa’apa), loyalty (mamahi’i me’a), humility (lototo), and reciprocity (tauhi va). He went on to speak about three main areas: Tonga’s young people, Tonga’s culture, and Tonga’s youth development.
He applauded the Church for “…its visionary foresight in nurturing and cultivating the seed of faith through youth development.”
“We have all witnessed here tonight the wonderful cultural display by these young people performing on stage. I am sure it takes courage, self-confidence, and a positive attitude to be able to demonstrate their commitment to learning and appreciating their cultural heritage.”
Elder Andersen began by asking the Prime Minister for a copy of his address to take home with him to share with other Church leaders.
He praised the performers and told them there were two things he hoped they had learned.
One was that “…through practice and hard work, and by repetitiveness, by pushing yourself to do something difficult, you can do something very well. When you do something very well, everyone around you appreciates it. This includes all aspects of life: music, dance, sports, and even school.”
The second is “…to do something together, with others; something that is more than just for yourself. I saw beauty tonight. I saw hundreds in perfect unity. Do more things ‘together’ than you do ‘alone.’ This includes not only in the Church, but in school, in government, in your community.”
Elder Andersen concluded by saying, “We are all children of God. I feel of His love for you. I am His witness. I know that Jesus Christ is our Redeemer. One day every one of us will kneel at His feet and confess Him to be the Savior of the world.”