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Tongan Ballerina – Eliana Vaha’i Feao

At the age of 13, the Tongan Ballerina, Eliana Vaha’i Feao, has won the hearts and admiration of her fellow Pacific people, while making her mark in history. As the first Tongan to train at the prestigious Ballet West Academy, she’s also managed to graduate from high school with high honours, and has been accepted into college. Although her story seems like the perfect ballerina’s fairytale, it hasn’t always been that way – at such a young age she’s learnt the difficult lesson of failure, growth and letting go. She’s also learnt how to embrace a new dream in dancing, and today, she spoke with us about her journey – the biggest challenges, triumphs and her advice for young Pacific people. 

What inspired you to become a ballerina, especially coming from a culture that doesn’t have a history of ballet? 

Growing up, I watched ballet but never saw myself as a ballerina. I was far more attracted to gymnastics. Barely do I remember taking ballet classes, when I was about three years old, around the same time I started gymnastics.

My parents both thought gymnastics would suit me better and I agreed, so I focused on that and stopped taking dance. I worked out in the gym about twenty hours a week – it was my life. I just knew I was going to be the first gymnast to compete in the Olympics for Tonga, and that drove me.

It didn’t matter if my hands were bleeding from the bars or I was too sore to walk, I just kept pushing and pushing myself to be the best. In the end, I pushed too hard too fast, and ended up with an injury that ended artistic gymnastics for me forever. It was hard and I didn’t accept that it was over for a long time. Many times, I tried to go back to the gym but my elbows couldn’t take it. There’s no way to describe how heartbroken and devastated I was.

My mom was worried about me so she put me in the first open ballet class she could find, just to get me out. I didn’t even want to go. All I wanted to do was gymnastics. She pretty much bullied me into going for about a month before I realised I actually liked it.

The teachers all said I was a gifted dancer and was made for ballet but I didn’t really believe them and I also didn’t really care because my heart was still in gymnastics. I thought of ballet as something I could do until my elbows healed, (I still hadn’t accepted that they never would). It’s funny looking back because I can’t imagine my life without ballet now. I love it just as much as I loved gymnastics – maybe even more!

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What’s been the biggest challenge in your journey so far as a dancer? 

Always fighting my own need to be perfect. Good enough doesn’t exist for me, and ballet itself is demanding of perfection. Learning to let go of a mistake or the frustration of not doing a step or dance combination as well as I’d like is something I’m working on.

Also, ballet comes from Europe and the physical standard definitely reflects that! When I first started ballet I wasn’t even thinking about the challenges a Pacific Islander would have. As I got better and moved up, it started to hit me that ballet glorifies long, lean, and pale. I am not any of those things! I struggled a lot last year with body image. I know I will always have bigger leg muscles then the typical ballerina and my skin is always going to be tan.

Having the support of so many people from Tonga and the South Pacific has helped me be at peace with that. The funny thing is, in ballet I am considered a bit thick and ethnic, but to Polynesians I am skinny and pale! In the end, I have to be happy in my own skin no matter how anyone else sees me. That’s the real challenge.

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What are you most proud of so far? 

Being able to find a new dream and not just giving up, even though at times I really wanted to. (I couldn’t have done it without my mom, of course!). I used to feel like I failed at gymnastics but now I realise that when you give everything you have to your goal it is impossible to fail. You win in the journey. You win every time you take a step toward that goal. The goal has changed but every step I took made me a better person. I’m still me, but instead of chalk on my hands I have pointe shoes on my feet.

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What advice do you have for young Pacific people who are chasing their dream? 

Pacific people have a huge advantage in the world. Everyone needs fuel to do what they do and Pacific people have the best fuel of all; a huge amount of love and support from their people! It’s almost an unfair advantage, having an entire people invested in your success!

Because we see any of our people’s success as everyone’s, we really care about helping each other reach our goals, and get super excited when someone does. It’s that incredible sense of community that we are so blessed to have. Use that love and support and do something amazing!

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We’d like to thank Eliana and her lovely family for agreeing to share her story with us. To follow her as she makes history, you can find our Tongan Ballerina on Facebook and Instagram


Photo credit: 

Costume fitting for performance in Tonga, dancing Aurora’s variation from the ballet Sleeping Beauty.

Ballet West Academy, by photographer Colin Fugit. 


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