By Melissa Howard
In Hawaiian culture, respecting the power, spirit, and passion embodied by women is second nature. In mainstream American spaces, the hula dancer may be embodied through images of grass skirts and coconut bras, of silhouettes swaying in the breeze and the gentle motion of arms rolling softly to mimic the crest of a wave. This representation is based on Hawaiian hula, which is one of many practices that extend the heritage of deep respect for women (and all genders) in Hawaii to modern times. And while the practice of hula belongs to and is created by Native Hawaiians, often referencing a place of significance local to Hawaii, a Hawaiian genealogy, or a Hawaiian mo’olelo (story, myth, or legend), there are also many nā hālau (schools or groups) here in America and all over the world that learn hula.
Hula, in the best way it can be described using western terminology, is an act of cultural preservation. It is a vessel for transferring ancient, native Hawaiian knowledge from generation to generation. Led by a Kumu (or teacher), these communities — which can comprise both men and women — learn hula dances that teach them a direct piece of knowledge about the ancestral past.
As Teresa Kealoha Johnson put it, “hula is knowledge of the heart of the Hawaiian people.” Teresa is a member of the Hālau Nāpuaokamokihanaoha hula community that was founded in San Jose in 2007 by Kumu Luana Nāpuaokamokihanaoha Rivera Palacio.
“Hula isn’t just about dancing,” added Sandra Kalā Shimizu, also of Hālau Nāpuaokamokihanaoha. “It’s also about understanding the meaning (the obvious and the “hidden”) of the Hawaiian songs, understanding the story we’re telling as we dance, learning chants, learning and practicing the protocol required. It’s also about respect — respect for the hula, respect for our practice skirts (pa’u), for our performance costumes and for our adornments; respect for our Kumu and all she’s sharing with us; respect for our sistas and for ourselves; respect for our hula lineage and all who have come before us in this practice.”
Just as the native Hawaiian lineage and history is passed down from one Kumu to another, tying each generation back to the very birth of Hawaiian knowledge, the hālau must come together in service of the historical lesson behind each hula dance. While each individual brings his or her experience, background, and understanding to the Kumu’s lesson, the community is really driven by the purpose of having a thorough and shared understanding of the lesson, in order to tell the story as one.
“Knowing who you are as an individual is important. That translates to my practice of hula as well; I have to really know myself in order to fit into this communion of people, this sisterhood,” reflected Glady Kama Lee of Hālau Nāpuaokamokihanaoha
Perhaps this perspective itself — that to feel like you truly belong with others as part of a community, you must first understand who you are — is the lesson we can learn today from Hālau Nāpuaokamokihanaoha.
It certainly makes you look closer to discern what other lessons rest just below the surface of that magical pairing of beautiful Hawaiian music and hula dancer.
Hālau Nāpuaokamokihanaoha was founded in 2007 in San Jose, California by Kumu Luana Nāpuaokamokihanaoha Rivera Palacio. In English, the Hawaiian word “hālau” can be translated as “long house” and is used in this instance to denote a place where hula is taught. “Nāpuaokamokihanaoha” literally means “the flowers of the thriving mokihana;” the name also holds a poetic, personal interpretation for hālau members.
Learn more about the study of hula at this link: https://mele.com/so-you-want-to-study-hula/