Learning the culture of Pacific Islanders through dance

ELK GROVE, Calif. — Few cultures rely on the art of dance to influence their young as much as the Pacific Island Kingdom of Tonga. Several times a week Catherin Ofa Mann, or Ofa as she is known, held traditional pacific islander dance lessons for the community. 

Unfortunately, on Monday, May 11, Ofa died suddenly. She leaves behind a legacy of advocating for the Pacific Islander community. Before passing, ABC10 spoke with her about the non-profit group she founded and how she teaches American Born Pacific Islanders the culture of their ancestors. 

“TOFA in the Tongan Language means trailblazer,” said Ofa.

The Kingdom of Tonga is a group of more than 170 islands in the South Pacific with Samoa and Hawaii to the north and New Zealand to the south. Like much of Polynesia, many cultural traditions were lost or changed due to early 17th and 18th-century Colonialism. Today, Ofa says as more Tongan’s leave the Kingdom to places like California the culture, and even the language, is often not passed onto the youth. 

“When I got here the youth did not sound like Polynesian, they did not act Polynesians,” said Ofa.

Ofa had been working with troubled youth in Sacramento’s Pacific Islander community since the 1990s. She started TOFA in 2000 in an effort to keep Pacific Islander kids out of trouble through cultural dance. 

“If we can encourage them to be leaders of this country with attitude and culture, I think we will be better off,” said Ofa.

Exposing the community to Pacific Islander dance is a big part of TOFA’s mission. The group regularly puts on dance performances. One of their biggest shows is at the California state fair where they encourage the crowd to participate. 

“We are out there to teach to share and welcome everyone to be a part of our show,” said Ofa. 

For many of the youth involved, Polynesian dance is the biggest exposure they have to the land their parents or grandparents came from and dance is something they can take with them.

In Ofa’s honor, a TOFA scholarship fund was created in her name and will support Pacific Islander high school seniors. Anyone who wishes to donate to the scholarship can do so on the TOFA website https://tofainc.org/. Donations may also be accepted by checks to TOFA, P O Box 221052, Sacramento, CA 95822. Please reference the ‘Ofa Mann Scholarship Fund.

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