Room Enough For All: Debunking Bay Area Hula Traditions

By Katie Gaydos

October 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Even with the impressive and growing number of hula schools in the Bay Area, a majority of people still associate hula dance with a false stereotype. “Most people think of hula in oversimplified terms…as a dance that’s accompanied by a grass skirt and waving hands,” says artistic director of Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, Patrick Makuakane. “They often have no idea of the texture, the depth and the brevity that goes along with the hula.”

Anyone who’s seen more than a kitsch Hollywood rendition of hula can attest to the complexity, subtlety and breathtaking grace inherent in the multi-dimensional art form. Rooted in a rich history of cultural traditions, hula was developed by the Polynesians that first settled in Hawaii as a means of entertaining and honoring the culture’s gods and ruling chiefs. Traditionally performed to a poetic text or chant (mele), hula interprets, embodies and breathes life into the cultural histories and stories, passed down through the mele. Precise hand and arm gestures often represent specific words or themes while fluid lower body undulations and grounded footwork provide a framework for poetic movement inflection, intonation and pacing.

Taught in hula schools or groups (known as halau) by hula teachers (known as kumu), hula is typically divided into two main categories: hula kahiko and hula ‘auana. The more traditional of the two, hula kahiko refers to the indigenous performance style that is accompanied by traditional Hawaiian instruments, historical chants and customary costumes while hula ‘auana refers to more contemporary forms of hula that have evolved under western-influence and incorporated western-influenced musical instruments.

As hula, and Hawaiian culture in general, continue to flourish and grow beyond the Hawaiian islands (the 2000 US Census reported that there were more Hawaiians living on the mainland than in Hawai’i) questions of how to preserve, honor and evolve the hula outside of its original birthplace continually arise.

Director/Kumu Hula Patrick Makuakane–prominent Hula teacher and artistic director of the Bay Area based hula dance company Na Lei Hulu–is invested in preserving hula while encouraging its necessary evolution. Integrating traditional and contemporary forms of hula since founding his company in San Francisco in 1985, his unique contemporary style, which he coins hula mua or “hula that evolves,” merges traditional hula movement with modern and often non-Hawaiian music.

Using progressive house tracks, electronic, pop, world music and everything in between, Makuakane’s pieces are nothing short of dynamic, experimental and exciting. Yet while creating a striking dichotomy between ancient and contemporary styles he is passionate about never losing sight of a strong traditional foundation. He suggests that finding a balance between upholding and innovating tradition is part of the art: “Artists are constantly struggling with the idea of preserving traditions while simultaneously trying to evolve those traditions. I see everyone struggling to modernize the dance while trying to maintain the integrity of the traditions and foundations of the hula” says Makuakane. “Some people are remaining very traditional which is great while some people are really experimenting. I think in the end there is room enough for both.”

This year the company’s annual home season–The Hula Show 2011–at the Palace of Fine Arts (Oct 15-23) will both honor and innovate. The Hula Show 2011 includes a collaboration with the San Francisco Golden Gate Men’s Chorus and showcases the world premiere of Hanohana Kapalakiki, a suite of chants that celebrates the long-standing historical ties between Hawai’i and San Francisco. With this collaboration, plus 36 company dancers, and chants including an Islamic Chant called Zikr, an Indian Ragga called Ramjali and Eddie Vedder’s “The Long Road,” the event encapsulates a wide spectrum of music and dancing.

Recently I had the privilege of sitting in on one of the company’s rehearsals and was amazed at each dancer’s attention to subtle detail and organic movement quality. It was especially interesting to watch Makuakane teach the company five verses of a Hawaiian chant and the movement steps that accompanied each verse. It was apparent that by learning the movement and the chant at the same time the dancers grasped a deeper meaning of each step. Instead of merely moving through a series of steps, the dancers embodied and internalized each rhythmic step and the meaning of the word(s) that coexist with each movement. It is precisely this embodied ownership and authority inherent in each complex step and fluid transition between steps that was especially captivating. Moving together with a sense of cohesive community, the large group of dancers occupied space with regal precision, powerful grace and radiating energy. When they hit the stage at The Palace of Fine Arts audience members will surely leave with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Hawaiian culture.

Like Makuakane, Bay Area hula teacher Kumu Hula Analu Akao is dedicated to promoting understanding and appreciation of the Hawaiian culture. His choreographic style and hula school Halau Hula ‘O Kupukalau ‘ie ‘ie however, remain in the more traditional aspect. Teaching and choreographing in the classic style of legendary hula master Aunti Maiki Aiu Lake, Analu believes that learning traditional hula often becomes a holistic and immersive study into Hawaiian culture. Analu explains, “[Learning to dance hula] is not just a concentration on the movement but rather a concentration on the languages, the music, and the culture…it’s an entire experience.”

Since first opening his school in 2007 Analu has witnessed an increasing interest in the cultural aspects of hula. “Some people are drawn to hula because they enjoy the movement but I think a lot of them are beginning to understand that within the movement there is also the spirit of the culture. There is a spirit learning process, which is based upon understanding the language. The language has a story to it,” says Analu. “Students might have come to me because they were interested in learning to move and get physical exercise but I’m finding that more of them are being drawn to the spirit of it which has more of a cultural learning experience attached to it.”

Analu’s upcoming show at the Regents Theater in Oakland (Oct 29), Mohala Mau: Ke Kauna Aloha (Forever in Bloom: The Beloved Four), will honor four iconic and influential Hawaiian women that his students are studying. “Our phase of study began in fall of 2008 so it has been an ongoing learning experience for my students” explains Analu. The performance will showcase 45-50 Halau Hula students who range in age from young children to seniors and will feature music by Aaron Sala, narration by Kealoha Kelekolio, and choreography by Kumu Analu himself.

When asked why each of these four women were chosen to be honored in the upcoming performance Analu explains that they were selected because of their unrelenting passion and dedication in various areas of Hawaiian culture. Analu says, “Queen Lili’uokalani was selected because of her great abilities in composing Hawaiian music. Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop was selected because of her legacy in providing educational opportunities for native Hawaiian people. Mary Kawena Pukui was selected because she is the women who had efforts in preserving the Hawaiian language and Aunti Maiki Aiu Lake was selected for her immense interest and dedication to preserving the hula.”

By honoring the traditions and hula masters of the past and celebrating the wide range of hula styles that have evolved into the present, both Analu Akao and Patrick Makuakane lay the groundwork for the hula legends of the future.

In a time when advances in fast-paced technology often overshadow advances in the arts, it’s easy to dismiss hula and other cultural dance forms as somehow stereotypically outdated. However, now more than ever we must strive to debunk our own assumptions and prejudices and explore the common thread inherent in every act of dancing. When asked about the direction Hula is headed, both Makuakane and Analu remain optimistic about the future. Analu asserts, “I think [hula] has a wonderful future. I think there will always be the greater challenge of trying to maintain tradition while creating. I’m trying to impart on my students the importance of tradition so that there will always be something to study. Which is not to say, simply stay in the past. I think that we need both tradition and the ability to move forward. If we have a tendency to lose sight of the past then I think there is a tremendous loss.”

Like Analu, Makuakane recognizes the struggle artists continually face as they attempt to both honor and modernize hula traditions. However, in the end he has faith that hula will continue to flourish. “There are a lot of incredibly capable, young, talented hula teachers who are passionate about studying their culture,” says Makuakane. “I have no doubt that hula is in great hands.”

See calendar on page 6 and 7 for performance information.

This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of In Dance.

Katie Gaydos is a freelance dance writer and has contributed to The Daily Californian, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, In Dance, and Emmaly Wiederholt’s blog Stance On Dance. Katie has been dancing with KUNST-STOFF Dance Company since Fall 2011.