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A performer at Disney’s Polynesian Village inspired this Samoan dancer’s hula school in South Jersey

Sikopu “Scope” Savaiinaea was born in Samoa and learned to dance in Hawaii from his uncle, one of Disney's original fire knife dancers. His South Jersey dance school, which opened in the 1990s, teaches the culture of the Pacific Islands.

(L-R) Tino Savaiinaea, Chief Sikopu "Scope" Savaiinaea, Katie Savaiinaea-Elisaia and Niko Savaiinaea dance together during the South Pacific Island Dancers annual dance recital at the Broad Street Elementary School in Gibbstown, N.J. on June 21, 2019.
(L-R) Tino Savaiinaea, Chief Sikopu "Scope" Savaiinaea, Katie Savaiinaea-Elisaia and Niko Savaiinaea dance together during the South Pacific Island Dancers annual dance recital at the Broad Street Elementary School in Gibbstown, N.J. on June 21, 2019.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

When Sikopu “Scope” Savaiinaea traveled from Hawaii in 1982 to work at an Atlantic City casino for a summer with his dance troupe, he never predicted that he would be leading the South Pacific Island Dancers, the largest and longest-running Polynesian dance school and troupe in the greater Philadelphia area, nearly four decades later.

“Not bad for a guy who moved here without an education, right?” Savaiinaea, who was born in Samoa, said proudly while watching dozens of young dancers rehearse in the auditorium of Broad Street Elementary School in Gibbstown, N.J., last month.

The dancers were preparing for their annual luau, a rowdy and celebratory affair complete with a traditional Hawaiian feast. Each class, organized by age, gets to show off what they’ve learned over the past eight months. The boys wore loincloths, while the girls donned flower wreaths, grass skirts, and coconut bras. At the rehearsal, all the dancers shook their hips with confidence and twirled their wrists, huge smiles on their faces.

Even though he doesn’t teach classes anymore, Savaiinaea still plays the drums onstage and roasts a whole pig for the feast each year. After 25 years of running these recitals, he said he’s gotten the process down to a science. Savaiinaea also invites any Eagles player with Pacific Islander descent — this year, offensive tackle Jordan Mailata showed up for the festivities with his girlfriend.

Pacific Islander culture is not widespread in this area, but it’s a fast-growing population in the United States. Since the 2010 census, all 50 states reported increases in their Pacific Islander populations. New Jersey’s Pacific Islander population doubled between 2010 and 2016, leading to increased interest in the group’s culture.

After moving to Hawaii in his late teens, Savaiinaea learned to dance from his uncle, who was one of the first fire knife dancers at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort in Orlando. Savaiinaea eventually joined a troupe that performed at resorts in Atlantic City.

After the troupe’s contract ended, Savaiinaea decided to stay in the area. He repaired bulldozers and other equipment at the EMR scrap yard in Camden, and worked nights as a bouncer at a club called Omar’s in Blackwood. On the weekends, he continued performing with the other dancers who had chosen to stay behind. One night at a recital, he met Colleen, another hula dancer. They fell in love.

“After that, we went out on our own and started a small troupe,” Savaiinaea said. “We only had three girls.”

Luckily for the Savaiinaeas, who later married, their troupe — and family — expanded rapidly through the late 1980s and 1990s. The couple’s first child, Katie, was born the same year the couple founded the dance school, and Savaiinaea began teaching her how to dance as soon as she took her first steps. Five more children followed: Sikopu “Scope” Jr., Eileen, Nikolao “Niko," Liva, and Tino.

Eventually the Savaiinaeas decided they wanted to spread Polynesian dance and started a studio in Paulsboro, N.J., in 1993. During the summers, their children would travel to perform at luaus their father had booked, forgoing pool trips and weekends spent camping.

‘It’s who we are’

“Dance is really our main form of passing down history and traditions,” said Katie Savaiinaea-Elisaia, now 32. “It’s who we are as people. Each island has their own style, but they all address our history and our stories of where we came from.”

“We were never home. We were always dancing,” added Eileen, now 25. “I never really had a normal summer, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s opened me up to so many opportunities.”

Tragedy struck the Savaiinaea family when Colleen died unexpectedly in 2004, before Tino’s first birthday. Katie, who was only 17 at the time, took over her mom’s teaching responsibilities at the school with the help of her siblings. Savaiinaea worked seven days a week at the scrap yard to put food on the table and his kids through college. He still works there today.

“It was obviously really hard when my mom passed,” said Eileen, who in May received a master’s degree in forensic chemistry from Temple University. She currently does a little bit of everything at the studio — choreographing, designing costumes, teaching occasional classes, and handling front desk duties.

Her brothers are equally involved. They dance, help select music, run the sound system during performances, and carry props when the troupe travels for gigs.

A student for life

The studio kept growing because of the family’s dedication to making sure it survived. They have a long list of students who have been with them year after year, including 23-year-old Lindsay Bay, who has been taking classes since she was a child. Bay first saw the South Pacific Island Dancers perform at a carnival when she was 3 years old.

“During their performance, I couldn’t stop moving to the music,” Bay said. “When their classes started in the fall, my parents enrolled me.”

Bay, who lives in Deptford, said she made many friends, including Eileen, through the classes. It was also an engaging way for her to exercise once a week. In her teenage years, Bay started dancing with the professional troupe as well.

“I don’t take other styles of dance,” she said. “We’re always learning new types of dance here, so it’s very exciting for me. Sometimes it takes a little while for the body to get used to the kinds of movements in those dances, but it’s really rewarding.”

Bay said that it was obvious from the start that the Savaiinaea family really valued their Samoan culture. They visited Scope Savaiinaea’s birthplace together in 2007, and the men in the family sport pe’a, or traditional Polynesian tattoos, on their forearms.

Katie has been teaching her 5-year-old son, Klaus, to dance as well. (He was an enthusiastic participant in the luau.)

“It’s been awesome to see how much the studio has grown,” Bay said. “Now, when you go in, you can see entire families doing it together because they offer so many classes for all levels of dancers.”

“It was a really big effort, to just keep pushing through with the studio, because it was something that my mom really loved,” Eileen said. “She loved the culture and sharing it. It was really important for us to keep her legacy alive.”