Sau Sau, the most typical Rapanui dance of Easter Island

Sau Sau dance at the Kari Kari Cultural Ballet
Sau Sau dance at the Kari Kari Cultural Ballet

The Sau Sau is a Rapanui dance-song of Polynesian origin that over time has become the most representative dance of Easter Island. Know the history, the lyrics and how to dance the sau sau.


Influence of Polynesian music on Rapa Nui

Dancers from the Te Ra'ai ballet in Polynesian costumes
Dancers from the Te Ra’ai ballet in Polynesian costumes

During the long period (1870-1950) in which Easter Island became a large sheep farm, run first by the company created by Jean-Baptiste Dutroux-Bornier and John Brander, and later managed by the Easter Island Exploitation Company, an intense maritime communication with Tahiti was established.

More information about Easter Island history

The ships that came from Papeete, in addition to transporting goods to supply Rapa Nui, brought Tahitians interested in discovering Easter Island. And when they returned, along with the wool, Rapanui families who settled in Tahiti also embarked. These commercial and cultural ties that were formed then still endure today.

In that period of cultural exchange, the influence of the language, music and customs of Tahiti and other Polynesian islands was gaining ground among the few inhabitants who lived on Rapa Nui. Currently, on Easter Island several types of dances of Polynesian origin are preserved, among which the hula hula, the tamuré and the sau sau stand out.


Origin of Sau Sau

German battleship next to a small sailing ship during World War II
German battleship next to a small sailing ship during World War II

The renowned author Ramón Campbell, doctor, musician and musicologist, in his work “The musical heritage of Rapa Nui” tells us the curious history of Sau Sau and how it became part of the musical catalog of Easter Island.

In 1939, the year World War II began, the Pacific Ocean ceased to be as friendly as its name indicated. Many ships that sailed in the middle of the sea, far from their home ports, were exposed to possible attacks from enemy planes, battleships and submarines. Therefore, sensible captains changed course to seek refuge in neutral ports or ports belonging to allied countries.

At that time, most of the Polynesian islands were colonies of England and France, so German citizens were not welcome. This is how a small German pleasure yacht arrived in Rapa Nui from central Polynesia, escaping from the enemy threat to land on an island that belonged to Chile, a neutral country during the war.


A Valkyrie in the history of Sau Sau

The yacht was called Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), after the women who carried the most valuable warriors fallen in combat to Walhalla, according to Norse mythology, and which inspired Richard Wagner’s opera of the same title.

Interestingly, a German steamer with the same name was sunk in the port of Papeete (Tahiti) during the German bombardment of 1914 at the beginning of the First World War. Twenty-five years later, the small sailboat was able to escape the enemies in time, luckily for its occupants and for Rapanui music.

The yacht belonged to a young German couple traveling with two sailors from Tahiti. They were anchored in Hanga Roa for only six days to stock up on water, food and repair the sails. At that time, while the German couple went ashore to see the island and greet the authorities, the two Tahitian crew members, called Henere and Mapé, entertained the islanders with their guitars singing songs learned in the various ports of Polynesia.

Among those songs there was one that caught the attention of the Rapanui dancers and by ear, they learned the melody and a letter that they did not understand. The sailors said that the song came from Samoa. It is likely that it was true, since in the six lines of the first stanza the letter “S” appears, which does not exist in the Rapanui language.

After the brief visit, the small yacht left the island for Valparaíso, leaving its inhabitants with the memory of Tahitian musicians and a sweet Polynesian song that took root in their hearts. Years later, more verses were added in the Rapanui language and the song gained in rhythm and sensual joy to make the sau sau the most recognizable dance on Easter Island.


A synonym with party

Couples dancing the Sau Sau at the Puku Rangi Tea ballet
Couples dancing the Sau Sau at the Puku Rangi Tea ballet

Since its incorporation into the Rapanui musical repertoire, the presence of Sau Sau in meetings between island friends and relatives has become inevitable. So much prominence acquired this song and dance that its name became synonymous with party.

These types of parties, popularly called Sau Sau and in which people gathered to celebrate something, were celebrated with special intensity in the 50s and 60s of the last century. The participants came dressed in their best clothes, especially the women who came with beautiful hairstyles, elegant dresses and high heels.

The hosts kindly received their guests with an abundance of food and drink. The music that played on the turntable was popular rhythms in fashion, such as rock & roll, the twist and others. But after midnight, encouraged by alcohol and by candlelight, guitars and native songs took over.


It was then that the “real Sau Sau” began and the couples began to dance until well into the morning. The dances, which lasted up to 20 minutes and accelerated towards the end, left their uninhibited participants exhausted after reaching a kind of sensory ecstasy.

The celebration of this type of spontaneous parties began to disappear with the arrival of the first tourists, when the airlift began between the Mataveri airport and Santiago de Chile in 1967.

Currently, travelers can relive the spirit of these ancient local festivals in the various Rapanui dance shows that can be found in Hanga Roa.

Sau Sau music and lyrics

One of the first Sau Sau recordings, if not the first, was made by the great Chilean artist and folklorist Margot Loyola together with José Pakomio Abimereka, Gabriel Tuki, Guillermo Nahoe and Rodolfo Paoa.

As she herself recounts, the quintet recorded the album “Isla de Pascua” in 1959 for the RCA Victor label with traditional Rapa Nui songs that they later showed on different stages, even performing at the Municipal Theater of Santiago in 1960, where the Sau Sau was applauded.

“Sau Sau” lyrics

In the video inserted above you can listen to the evocative music of Sau Sau performed by Bafona (National Folk Ballet of Chile) along with the lyrics in karaoke mode.

The lyrics of the original song that makes up the first two verses of the Sau Sau are of Samoan origin and therefore their translation is not possible. However, the following two stanzas were added to the original in the Rapanui language. Next, we write the lyrics of the sau sau and its translation into English.

Sau-Sau reva
sau reho vari
erua simo simo simo
pou-pou kari
erua maki-maki
mai sapai pahure hia

Ua riro re he he
ua riro re he he he he
re he he he
ore rehehe e e e

E mai te ho’a po ava’e
ava’e haumaru
taua mihi-mihi raa
taua here hia e

A ore to oe riri
e mau sereti’e
ia ho’i fa hou taua
taua mate aué

(no known translation)


On a night this month
of this quiet month
when we get together
we will die of love oh!

Calm your anger
Mau Sereti
let’s go back again
to die of love oh!

Characteristics of the Sau Sau dance

The Sau Sau is a loose and independent couple dance, which performs its evolutions almost touching each other. When several couples participate, they do not mix, each one keeping their space.

The Sau-Sau represents a romantic and sensual dialogue that is characterized by its soft and flexible movements of the hips, arms and hands. The movements are slow with a changing center and short steps that barely lift the feet off the ground, transferring the weight of the body from one foot to the other, over the whole foot or midpoint.

The arm, the hand and the fingers form a single block whose movements resemble smooth, undulating lines. Both arms follow free movements and sometimes the woman hints at combing her hair and looking at herself in the mirror with flirtatious gestures.

Each dancer imprints his personal stamp and individual expressive contributions, always preserving measure and harmony.

How to dance the Sau Sau

Dr. Ramón Campbell describes how the Sau Sau was danced in the mid-1960s:

“The couple begins the dance with the man embracing the lady and going around the dance floor a few times. After one, three or four turns in a row, the lady is released from her arm that encircles her and is held only by the gallant’s left hand. Then she must do a few turns on herself, turning on the axis that her partner gives her with her hand, while he watches her turn.

After this phase, in which the lady turns one, two or three times on her axis, the couple separates and the most original part of the dance begins. This part is characterized by more or less oblique crossings of the couple in one direction and the other, always facing each other and executing various parallel figures that become more and more complicated. The multiplicity of figures executed by the couple alternates with small intervals in which the dancers, placed at the ends of their respective dance floors, stop for a moment to start a new figure of a different shape.

The fantasy of these figures depends a lot on the dancers. An outline of Tamuré or Hula usually alternates between these figures, as well as the couple making turns on their axis each, the only time they turn their backs on each other, to return to dance facing forward in a slightly oblique position of the body. It is also frequent that among the female figures the one with the hairstyle before the mirror appears. The male usually also makes a similar figure; in which he rather simulates holding his head with one hand and the other arm stretched forward to meet the lady.”


Sau Sau Clothing

The clothing to dance Sau Sau is usually the typical Rapanui clothing that we can currently see in traditional dance shows.

The men dance naked except for the hami or loincloth and some accessories such as necklaces and a crown of feathers.

The women, who are the true protagonists of the dance, wear the huru huru, made up of long skirts with white feather ties, feather bras and headbands or crowns of the same material. This light outfit sways colorfully with the undulating movements of the dance producing a hypnotic effect on the spectators. Sometimes they also use coconuts to cover their breasts and sarongs as skirts, a sign of Tahitian influence.

Sau Sau Instruments

Generally, the Sau Sau melody is interpreted by a polyphonic choir of male and female voices accompanied by a musical background in which guitars, ukuleles and drums are mainly involved.

Where to observe the Sau Sau?

Una pareja bailando el Sau Sau en el Ballet Cultural Kari Kari
Una pareja bailando el Sau Sau en el Ballet Cultural Kari Kari

Tourists who visit Easter Island can see the Sau Sau in the traditional dance shows performed by the different folkloric groups that are in Hanga Roa.

It is also possible to enjoy this and other dances in the presentations that they perform in Hanga Vare Vare during the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival that is celebrated annually the first fortnight of February.

In addition, it is not difficult to find Sau Sau in any corner of Chile, since this captivating rhythm is part of Chilean national folklore. School presentations and celebrations of National Holidays usually include the Sau Sau among the dances they represent, as does the National Folkloric Ballet of Chile (BAFONA) that performs more than 60 annual presentations, scheduled in various performances and tours throughout the national territory.