Santa Cruz Hula Teacher Receives Title of Kumu Hula

Lorraine Kalehua Kinnamon, local instructor and director of Te Hau Nui Polynesian Dance Company was recently awarded the title of Kumu Hula, a ritually conferred status marking ones advanced knowledge of hula and Hawaiian culture. Kinnamon’s own Kumu Hula, Loea Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett of Hawaii, with a Federal grant from the Administration of Native America, oversaw the instruction and training of ten California hula instructors for the purposes of increasing the knowledge of Mainland-based teachers. The Santa Cruz Dance Salon invited Lorraine to speak to us about her three-years of intensive training and the ceremonies and rites that concluded her journey.

Lorraine with her company Te Hau Nui

Lorraine and nine other established hula teachers (including another Santa Cruz teacher, Mehana Thomas) were selected through an audition process and a three-page application form that detailed their years of training and teaching and their contributions to the local Hawaiian community. Although Santa Cruz County has only a very small Hawaiian community, it holds close relationships with other hula instructors and the greater Hawaiian community of the region.

handmade grass skirts

Lorraine is a haole: a caucasian with pale skin and blond hair setting her visually apart from Hawaii’s Native population. In addition, she began her studies of hula during a period of Hawaiian history when Native identity politics were struggling for acceptance. Although she grew up on the Islands, began taking hula classes as a young girl, and toured with a company as a young adult, her outsider status made it difficult for her pursue Hawaii’s quintessential art form. “There were times,” she commented, “when I thought about quitting,” but her passion for the art was strong enough that she overcame all discouragements.

the simplest of musical instruments


The group began formal training to become Kumu Hula—called uniki—and over the course of three years they completed a series of intensive study sessions, six weeks in Sacramento and two in Hawaii. They were required to learn up to six dances per week, memorize chants and understand their layered meanings, become familiar with local flora and able to create costume pieces from local natural materials. Hawaiian culture is rich in history and tradition, formal protocols, and a deep respect for lineage, all of which these students learned.


Lorraine demonstrating with stone castanets called ‘ili ‘ili

With our small Salon group seated in a semi-circle around her, Lorraine began her presentation with a chant of thanks, her voice strong and uninhibited. These beautiful chants carry to its listeners the ancient heart of Island life and remembers its lineages, deities and sacred landscapes. I would like to have heard more of her songs, but Lorraine turned our attentions to a slideshow depicting her recent graduation ceremonies.


The eighth and final week of this Mainland uniki group took place, appropriately, on the Island. Here, with her “hula sisters” they made preparations for their final exams and rituals. They memorized a genealogy chant tracing their hula lineage which they later chanted before an altar dressed with ti leaves they had earlier selected for their beauty. They learned new dances that were to be performed for their Kumu Hula on graduation day. They created their own costumes for the ceremony from local flora. On the two nights leading up to the final day, the dancers remained awake making these preparations together. They fasted and drank little during the last hours. Part of this was practical: as a dancer dresses, each garment piece is accompanied by a chant: “When you adorn yourself, you become a walking altar.” Because you are now adorned in sacred dress, entrance into the bathroom is not allowed. Plus the costumes are elaborate, difficult to undo and had to be worn all day…best not to drink too much.


q & a

These tidbits only hint at the uniki process that Lorraine and her other hula sisters experienced. They became versed in the technical foundations of hula music and dance, in the historical and cultural traditions of the art, and in the formal protocols surrounding the proper use of hula, its accoutrements, and behaviors towards their teachers and the natural landscapes of Hawaii or their home cities. But it was clear from Lorraine’s loving descriptions and remembrances that this was a deeply moving and transformative experience. The hardships of rigorous training, the shared struggle of fasting, the long sleepless nights of preparation, the knowledge that they were joining a respected lineage…these create profound bonds between participants. In anthropology  circles, it is known as communitas: the experience of unity, of interpersonal bonding between peoples who undergo non-ordinary experiences together. This was clearly such an experience for Lorraine and we look forward to the ways it will enhance her teaching and performances. Congratulations, Lorraine.

Many thanks to Lorraine for her help with hula terminology.

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