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Performer at Disney’s Polynesian Village inspired this Samoan dancer’s school

(L-R) Tino Savaiinaea, Chief Sikopu "Scope" Savaiinaea, Katie Savaiinaea-Elisaia and Niko Savaiinaea dance together

Gibbstown, NEW JERSEY — 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 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.

“Dance is really our main form of passing down history and traditions,” said Katie Savaiinaea-Elisaia, Savaiinaea's daughter who is 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 a second daughter 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.”

Read more at the Philadelphia Inquirer