A Hula Master Visits Santa Cruz

I’d always promised myself that before I kicked the bucket I’d take a hula class. Now seemed as good a time as any so I signed up for Polynesian dance with our own Lorraine Kalehua Kinnamon, director of Te Hau Nui Polynesian Dance Company. It was a real treat when Lorraine announced that her “Kumu Hula” (a ritually conferred status marking ones mastery of hula and Hawaiian culture) Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett was coming to Santa Cruz.

He came to conduct two day-long workshops in both “hula kahiko”(ancient hula) and “hula auana” (modern hula). These I did not attend: they were expensive and I’ve only had three classes so far (four if you count the one I took about five years ago). But Lorraine told us that at the end of the day there would be an open performance/party featuring the workshop participants who would perform the dances they learned during the day.

I arrived at the “ho’ike” (hula recital) to find Kumu Hewett conducting a Q&A with several dozen women who had spent the day in his master class. The students sat on the lightly carpeted cement floor of a hotel conference room while the honored guest held court in a folding chair. (It couldn’t have been less glamorous.) Hewett pontificated mostly on the importance of preserving the history and traditions of hula and Hawaiian culture. He spoke with arrogance and absolute confidence in his wisdom. And why not: he is an acknowledged master of hula.

He spoke about many things that I did not understand, being a beginner. But some of his concerns are more universal, like The Great Debate between preserving the authenticity of historical traditions that provide roots and identity, and making room for innovative alterations to the form which serve and reflect contemporary realities. It’s a debate without conclusions.

He also spoke about the transfer of hula knowledge both orally and kinesthetically. We don’t take credit for ourselves, he explained, rather we give honor to those who came before.

I did not get a chance to see him dance but I did get a peak at his artistry. While explaining a fine point about hand positions, he held up his right hand to demonstrate. I was astonished by the precision, gentleness, and delicacy of that simple gesture. It conveyed an entirely different message about this man who had been speaking with such gravity about the preservation of his art. It conveyed, I suspect, the heart of hula.

Finally, he dismissed his accolades who had long since run out of questions and, I suspect, just wanted to get off that hard floor. “You should be dancing!” he said. The floor filled with about 20 workshop students who performed two hula kahiko they had practiced all day. They dancing in unison in perfectly aligned rows. I was mightily impressed with that alone. Creating and maintaining such precision in alignment appears to be an important characteristic of the art of hula. And to watch their swaying hips and the gentle curvature of their arms and hands was simply enchanting. The shape of the hip as it slides down a wave; the delicacy of the gestures. It catches my breath.

I wonder if this old, gruff New Englander will find that gentleness in me as I learn hula. Will I be able to express in my movement.

The Hawaiian band Island Breeze opened with a song and invited the dancers to join in, which they did in groups, pairs, and solos. There were some lovely soloists: a young girl was sweetness itself; many of the older women expressed their own deep knowledge and wisdom. My photographs are admittedly bad—I just can’t figure out how to shoot indoors. Still, I hope they illustrate of the pleasures of hula and I offer them in that spirit. Look at how these women relate to one another and the obvious joy they take in being together dancing. Thank you to The Ladies of Mehana who presented this workshop.

Workshop participants prepare to dance

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