By Kalafi Moala
21 January 2021 – It was a night that could not be easily forgotten. It was Henilieta Suliana Wolfgramm Afeaki’s 80th birthday. But it was a birthday with a difference, it was a tribute to the legacy of the founder of Suliana Dance Academy, Henilieta Suliana Afeaki, who has been teaching the art of dance in the kingdom since 1985. One hundred and seventy students performed traditional dances and recitals to celebrate the festive occasion.
Her Royal Highness Princess Salote Pilolevu Tuita was the guest of honor, together with her husband Lord Tuita. Lord Sevele and others from the noble realm were there. But the sold-out concert recital was charged with excitement and cultural pride as the one hundred seventy youth performers put out their best of Tongan traditional dances.
Thirty-six years ago, Suliana, who had moved back to Tonga with her late husband, Viliami Afeaki, decided to start dancing classes for children. She was a professional dancer herself at the Waikiki Polynesian shows, with the famous Tongan dancer Kalo Mataele, under the Tahiti Waikiki Show.
Finau Afeaki, Suliana’s daughter and chief instructor, did an incredible job hosting the whole event, with her co-director, Alexandra Fielea, coordinating the performances of their 170 students of the Suliana Dance Academy.
In an extremely warm evening, this extra-ordinary event in Nuku’alofa, “cooled the air,” and provided such youthful exuberance for the more than 1000 crowd that was there.
In a world hugely affected by the pandemic, and as in Tonga, often depressed with the political conundrums, it is refreshing to see a wonderful woman who has contributed much to the youth of Tonga, celebrate her 80th birthday demonstrating that performing art is a godly tool of peace and joy.
Added to the dance performances of the students, ranging from 4 years old to 19, was the realization that people were watching the continuance of a marvelous heritage, from the famous composer and poet Peni Tutu’ila, Suliana’s father, all the way down two generations, to granddaughter Finau.
But then, the “Tonga sisters” of Hawaii, Suliana’s grandchildren from elder daughter Telesia Afeaki Tonga, are family singers famous in USA from the Ellen TV show. Telesia herself is a gifted performer, in dance and music.
Tributes from former students are posted on social media to honor the woman who taught students the art of dance. One of her former students posted on FB, “When she opened her dance studio in Tonga, in the 80’s I was one of her first students, I dance with her studio until 1992 … I have always looked up to you because of your gracefulness and beauty when you dance, it inspires me to do the same.”
The performance and much talented genes of Peni Tutu’ila can be found aplenty among these grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The late Peni Tutu’ila is a performance composer icon in Tonga, who became famous during the reign of Queen Salote Tupou III, an incredible composer of excellence in her own right.