Their hips swathed in tight, colorful skirts, and their shoulders bare above tight tube tops, about 30 women shimmy and shake sexily to fast, powerful drum rhythms and the cheerful melody of Tahitian banjo.

“Move your hips around in time with the music! One, two, three, four . . . ” urges Ayumu Mahealani, whose ringing voice as the Tahitian dance instructor at classes in Sandii’s Hula Studio in Harajuku, Tokyo, both instructs and encourages at the same time.

While hula dance, taught in numerous hula schools and sports gyms, has been popular around Japan for several years, Tahitian dance is now following in its (bare) footsteps for the same reasons — that it’s fun and good for losing weight, especially around the waist.

But is this just one of those fleeting fads? Is it just a boomlet like so many others that ride brief waves of popularity before disappearing into the sand? To find out, your intrepid correspondent joined a Tahitian dance lesson in Harajuku and shook, shimmied and sweated profusely for 20 minutes in pursuit of that elusive post-hula scoop. And yes, the abdominals certainly knew they’d been put through a South Seas test!

In contrast, one of the regular students there, Mikiko Horie, said that after taking lessons for a year she had certainly strengthened her tummy muscles and the long-standing stiffness in her shoulders had gone.

Horie, who was learning hula at the same Harajuku studio, said that she saw Tahitian dance for the first time when the students and instructors there put on a show.

“I was attracted by the passion of this dancing that originated in a tropical country,” the 28-year-old dentist said.

Mahealani, who teaches hula and Tahitian dance at the studio, explained that the two are similar because in each of them arm and hand movements are key ways to express the meanings of songs.

There is a story, the studio staff said, that Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, originally came from Tahiti, bringing her native island’s music with her — which then developed into hula. But the actual hula and Tahitian dances still have quite different characteristics, Mahealani said.

“Many hulas have a slow rhythm, but Tahitian dances are performed to a fast drumbeat and look altogether sharp,” she said.

In Japan, the popularity of Tahitian dance has risen rapidly in recent years, with the number of students at this studio and its Yokohama branch alone having shot up from 20 in 2001 to 200 now. In addition, it is now widely taught at other studios nationwide.

Also, at Megalos Co., a leading sports club chain in eastern Japan, programs chief Yukikatsu Kuraoka says that Tahitian dance is so popular that the only restriction on the number of classes they offer is “finding suitable instructors.”

At Megalos Kanagawa, the chain’s club in Yokohama, Aiko Terasawa is a regular at the weekly Tahitian dance class. Since she started, she says, her waist measurement has reduced by 7 cm and she no longer feels chills in her body the way she used to.

Junko Fukazawa, her instructor, was not surprised by these beneficial effects. All that shimmying, she said, moves the core abdominal muscles back and forth, which enhances the metabolism and encourages sweating.

In one of her recent lessons, all this was clear to see as students danced to “Te Vai Nei (Here it is),” a song praising the timeless beauty of Tahiti, with hand and arm movements symbolizing the sun and twinkling stars.

“When dancing to the music, I hear the sound of the ocean’s waves,” Terasawa said — adding that the feeling this gives her based on the history of Tahitians seems to appeal directly to her soul.

All that — and fun-filled shapeliness, too.

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