I can’t even begin to tell you how many people have commented to me about how lucky I am to have a business built around my hobby. I feel blessed beyond measure to have my artistic and literary talent blossom into a career that has been very successful, and I do in fact love every minute in my studio. There is no denying that. It has not only been a lucrative business but a wonderful way to express myself and my creativity. My art and writing are a drive that I believe is genetically fused to my DNA as it was to my mother and her father, my grandfather. It no doubt defines who and what I am. But it is not my hobby or passion.
I dance the hula.
Now before you immediately think of the luau themed parties with everyone wearing plastic grass skirts, coconut bras and fake flowers or the little wiggle dashboard dolls of the fifties, let me clarify. It’s nothing like that!
I was raised in the islands. I was taught that hula is the very heartbeat of the people of Hawaiʻi. It tells the story of their hopes, dreams and history. It preserves their language and culture in a way nothing else can.
Growing up in the islands, I was always mesmerized by the hula. I was enrolled in classes after school as a kid and danced in programs my whole childhood under the direction of some amazing Kumu (teachers). Every time we had visitors come to town, my mother would take them to the Kodak hula show, and I’d beg to go with them. I remember laughing at the joy Hilo Hattie showed as she comically danced for the tourist. But more than that, I was brought to tears as I watched the kane (men) and wahine (women) dance Kahiko style chants with such skill and precision that it took my breath away. My favorite was never the young, pretty girls dancing in their coconut bras but rather it was watching the older women, the tutu or grandmothers, slowly and gracefully sway as they told their stories through ‘Auana style dance. I can actually remember thinking that when I became a grandmother someday, I wanted to dance like the tutu.
Dancing to the ho’i, my handsome son, Chase, stands vigil as the protective warrior of his kupuna. (Do NOT mess with his mama!)
Fast forward 40 years and a lot has happened. I moved to the mainland, went to college, marriage, kids, and successful career. And with that rich, full life came more fun, little hobbies than I can even count. But none of those hobbies stuck. A while back I got into scrapbooking. (Didn’t everyone?) I came across a photo of myself dancing the hula as a young woman and I swear my heart skipped a beat. Just as when I was a child, tears formed in my eyes and I was overcome with emotion, and it took my breath away for a moment. What was this all about? As a child I was so confused being raised in what many told me was not my culture. What did that mean anyway? After all, I was being raised in that culture, I was embracing that culture, the land, the people and even the language and yet I was continually being told I was an outsider and I didn’t understand. My first knee jerk reaction to my swell of emotions as I looked at this picture was to slap some glue on the photo, press it into place, turn the page and move on. Instead, I sat down at my computer. Still choking on my own emotions, I typed into the search engine: Hula Halau near me. What happened has changed my life ever since.
That search led me to a get-together where a bunch of local dancers would gather each month in Daytona Beach, FL. I was stunned to see the room filled with a bunch of haole (Caucasian) women, my age and older. They were all laughing hysterically and having a great time. There was a live band with three Polynesian men playing island music and two of the women spontaneously jumped up from their seats to the stage and started dancing. Feeling a bit like I was intruding, the lead band member, a man I later came to know as Uncle Rudy noticed me, and waved me in. At about the same time, the kumu, a then 91-year-old woman in a walker, named Waneta DeAngelo, stood up and started making her way towards me. She threw her arms around me and welcomed me.
This was not what I had in mind. But it was exactly what I needed.
Since that day almost 4 years ago, I eat, live, sleep and dance hula. I dance in class. I dance on the beach. I dance in the kitchen and I dance in the shower. When I’m painting a new piece of art, or writing a new book and I hit a creative block, my feet start dancing. Hula is my world now. It brings me more joy than I could have possibly ever imagined. And I love it heart and soul. It’s brings back all that was good about my childhood and yes, MY culture and with a breath of kindness, blows the rest away. The women in my halau are from varied walks of life and each brings a richness to our sisterhood and my life. The hula and this sisterhood have filled a void within me I never even knew existed and for that I am forever grateful.
This past weekend I participated in a Polynesian dance competition in Orlando Florida called “Hoʻike Hawaiʻi.” It was my second year to compete and I swear I didn’t sleep the whole weekend. It was absolutely magical. As I walked to the stage on the arm of my youngest son, also in costume, I glanced down to the front row of seats in the big ballroom which was filled to capacity. There sat my kumu, my hula sisters and my husband. The look on their faces was priceless and I knew they loved me as much as I loved them. As my band strummed the first bars of my kaʻi (Entrnce song), it was all I could do to not cry as I danced my solo. Not because I was scared or nervous… I absolutely was not. But rather because my heart was so full of joy, I couldn’t contain it… and I danced my heart out.
Recently when my Kumu turned 95 (Yes, she is still teaching!) I arranged for birthday wishes from other Kumu and students to be sent to her from all over the globe. One of the Kumu I asked to send a note was a woman named Nettie Armitage-Lapilio… someone my teacher greatly respects and admires. As part of her note, she said something that resonated with me at a level that so touched me, I struggle to find words to express. To paraphrase her comment, she said, “Hula is life… you must live it well.”
If hula is your life, you get it. If not, it’s hard to explain. (Auntie Nettie, I think I am beginning to get it.)
As a footnote, the competition was so magical. I was honored for the chance to even be on the stage and to share my hula with those I love. My goal was to dance my best and “give my hula away” to those dear friends of mine on the front row with all the love and respect hula deserves. Bottom line, both figuratively and literally, I won. I was awarded the first-place finish by the judges and fulfilled a bucket list dream. But as sweet as that victory was, it pales in comparison to the win I feel of having hula back in my life.
Big huge thanks to my Kumu, Waneta DeAngleo, my hula sisters for their love, support, example and patience. Big Mahalo to the sweet “boys in the band.” These men are top notch pros. They patiently listened as I told them I wanted an old-school-kanaka-vibe. They instantly smiled and one of them said with his island accent, “Good news, we old school kanaka!” I was honored to be dancing to their music. After my dance, while still on stage, I gestured to them my thanks. Fun boys that they are, they all gave me fist pumps and shakas. I love you guys: Wayne Fonoti, Roland Galindo, Elika Kawai, Rudy Batista. Thank you for sharing your talent.