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True Life Tales from a Hawaiian Hula Dancer

Article by Julie Y

The conch shell blows to signify the start of the luau. The drums beat rhythmically, matching the beat of a hula dancer's heart. The crowd waits in anticipation.

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The dancer walks slowly from the beach with a torch and takes the stage, just a silhouette against the moonlit night.

Where did she come from? And how did she learn to move her hips that way?

When I was little I looked forward to playing with the neighborhood kids everyday before dinner. We would ride our bikes, skateboard, or roller skate in the dead end street we lived on. Oh what fun...until I turned six and my mother decided that I should take hula lessons. Why? I have no idea and to this day she can't even tell me. All I remember is that every Tuesday I would cry, kick, and scream, and then have to suck it up when the car pool came to pick me up so the other two girls wouldn't know I was crying. That lasted quite a few years until I realized that I kind of liked dancing.

My kumu (teachers) were Aunty Mary Folk and Aunty Joan Lindsay. (Later they would split and I would go to Aunty Mary.) They taught the ancient style of hula, hula kahiko, (performed with drums and a serious face, no smiling) and auwana (think modern-style hula, with hips swaying like palm trees.) We learned Tahitian and Maori dances as well. We learned chants that accompany the dances and their meanings. Back then, there weren't as many hula halau (hula schools) as there are today. I once asked Aunty Mary why we weren't dancing in the Merry Monarch, the prestigious hula competition held in Hilo. (The annual event, known around the world, celebrates King David Kalakaua, Hawaii's "Merry Monarch," who brought hula back, since it had been banned from public display before his reign.)

Aunty Mary told me that she believed that all hula was beautiful and she'd rather not compete, just teach, learn and dance. To this day, that has stuck with me. I can still see Aunty Mary strumming her ukulele and singing, chin lifted, voice filling the entire room. She was a large woman with a voice and heart to match. Aunty Mary didn't believe in using a tape (was it 8 track back then?) or record for any of the Hawaiian numbers. That was so long ago,yet though over the years I have learned many different ways to dance the same song, I still dance the song "Waika" her way if asked to do so solo.

When I was twelve, I had an uniki (graduation) and that was the end of my dancing career--or so I thought.

While I was in college, a high school friend called me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to go to Japan. The hitch? I had to dance. So, I auditioned for Maeva Etene Tahiti, a group that traveled to Japan on different contracts. I searched my files to remember all that Aunty Mary had taught me; I was expected to perform all types of Polynesian dances. This experience would open up many opportunities for me to dance all over Hawaii and Asia and was one of the highlights of my dancing career.

The Japanese love Hawaii. We dancers were treated as celebrities. We were wined, dined, and showered with lavish gifts. Sometimes people came for several performances. In return, we took pictures, signed autographs, and gave away souvenirs we had brought from Hawaii--t-shirts, key chains, coffee and candies. And sometimes, to very special guests, we gave private mini-hula lessons.

It's funny how people from Hawaii can recognize each other. One day our group was walking down the busy streets of Tokyo and we heard, "Eh Hawaiian!" Sure enough, another group of Hawaii performers was squished in a taxi, screaming out the windows, and giving us the "shaka" sign. Only from Hawaii, gotta love the locals!

After my first trip to Japan,I went to Maui to visit a friend who worked for the Old Lahaina Luau. I met the owners Robert, Mike and Tim and got to know them over a few years. Eventually I decided to give up my dancing career and move to Maui. However, the stars had something else in store for me. With the encouragement of the owners of the Old Lahaina Luau, I dusted off my hula panties and took the stage again. Robert, the entertainment director, has an uncanny eye on spotting hula dancers. He knows exactly where you fit in his line. It is his vision and my "Turbo Jam Workout"? DVD that has kept me in the spotlight at the Old Lahaina Luau dancing next to sixteen year olds. (I figure I have a few years left before the body starts "reforming," and I want to be on stage as long as I can. I swear by Turbo Jam!)

The Old Lahaina Luau's approach is very different from any other luau. You will find no sequins or glitz here. We are the only venue that explores the history of Hawaii through the songs, chants, and hula. We start off with the Polynesians' migration to Hawaii, thus incorporating some Tahitian dances. We then perform the ancient dances of Hawaii, which evolve into the modern numbers.

We have a large cast: 13 female dancers, 6 males, a chanter (who describes and chants all the ancient numbers), a female MC/dancer, 4 musicians, and 4 Tahitian drummers. Our stage is like no other: traditionally round, called a "pa," with the beautiful Pacific Ocean and clear view of the island of Lanai as a backdrop. The dancers are required to have fresh ti leaf skirts and lei poo (lei piece for your head), which we make ourselves. Our costumes are traditional and period-oriented. For instance, when we introduce the first modern dances, one can see the missionary influence; floor length dresses with long sleeves cover the body entirely.

The goal of the Old Lahaina Luau experience is for the guest to forget everything outside of our "village." I feel we do a really good job. Our service crew is very animated and compliments the performers on stage. When guests leave, not only have they had wonderful entertainment--they actually learned a little bit about the history of Hawaii. As entertainers, we have the opportunity to make an impact and impression on our guests. Once a guest cried on our chanter's shoulder, apologizing for the overthrow of the Queen!

One dancer was at Disneyland with her family and in a crowd, she noticed a little red haired girl pointing at her, tugging on her mother's shirt excitedly. The little girl approached the dancer and said, "You dance at the Old Lahaina Luau, I was there two weeks ago--you were my favorite one, I remember your smile."

I feel very lucky. I get paid for doing something that I love. It can be hard sometimes--especially after working my "regular" job--to put on the make up and prepare for the show. But once I step on stage, see all the smiling faces in the audience, hear the clapping, and feel the excitement and energy of the crowd, I know I am home. Thank you mom for insisting that I go to hula lessons--oh, and sorry for the whining.