Half a Dozen Reasons for Dancing Hula
by Michael Foley
I’m dancing hula because Aunty Ethel kept bugging me. “Why don’t you dance?” That was one summer at the Senior Center in Kapa‘au. We were sitting in the back corner on folding chairs, watching twenty or more people dance hula on the dark brown floor boards. I didn’t know her name that first day. I thought she was kind of serious, maybe there in an official capacity, taking it all in. I just laughed. What I didn’t know then is that Aunty Ethel’s a bit of a party girl just choosing her moment to get up there and dance.
Sometimes the dancers used an empty building belonging to the Jodo Mission in Hawi. We’re sitting on a bench along one wall. This time she points into the group moving on the floor and says, “Why don’t you get up there and dance?” Then, with a wistful look into the distance she crosses her arms and says, “We need men.” Well, yes, I can count the number of men dancers on one hand. But isn’t dancing hula a girl thing? Maybe those three guys have been dancing since they were knee-high and they’re crazy passionate for hula. Me, I have two left feet, I can assure you. Besides, I think I told her already, I’m here to watch my wife dance hula. Now, she’s someone who’s crazy passionate for hula.
I’m dancing hula because I want to dance hula with my wife. I wouldn’t even be here in Hawai‘i if it weren’t for Charlotte. I’m pretty slow, so yeah, it took more than a decade for me to get up there and try it. Charlotte’s pretty smart, though. When it comes to off the radar stuff like your husband’s going to learn how to dance hula, she will never say to him, “No, that’s not how you do it,” because he will run the other way as fast as he can. In my case, he’ll walk away, because he can’t run far with those knees.
Most people are born head first. Learning how to dance hula, you’re born feet first. So I hung at the outer limits of the dance area, put my hands on my hips and moved my feet. Easy, right? There’s a sea of legs out there to follow, a few steps to the right, then the left, then the right, then the left, then the what the? Touch some spot on the floor in front of you with your right foot, bring it back and do the same with your left, and then what the? Reminded me of when I’m on my riding mower and the mynah’s are trying to guess where I’m going to go next. They’re running around jutting their beaks back and forth with their hands behind their backs like Groucho Marx, saying “What the? Where’s he going now? Can’t this guy mow in a straight line?”
For weeks and months I did the feet. I was not dancing hula. But you have to start somewhere, and without really thinking about it, I’d started. Without thinking! This was the key. Refraining from thinking is difficult for me, being a cerebral sort of person. I live in my head. A lot. Now I had to live in my feet. When your head’s in the clouds, your feet are far away, down there on the ground. Hey, are those my feet? Why won’t they do as they’re told? Who’s in charge here, anyway? Aunty Ethel can do it. Uncle Kealoha can do it. Why can’t I do it? Oh, I get it, those people were born that way. Like my wife. She was born to dance. That’s one of the many things I love about her. Me, I was born to think. That’s just who I am. And this feet thing is really pissing me off. Don’t talk to me right now! Stop showing me!
I think the bottom of the learning curve is a dark gulch full of mosquitoes and pig shadows with long tusks and there’s no way I can get out because all the vines keep tripping me up and grabbing at my ankles. But then, one day, I see a light. Maybe it’s a beautiful kukui tree. But it’s the kumu and her ‘alaka‘i, and they’re talking to me. She dances next to me and says, “Uncle Mike! Kaholo to the right. Kaholo to the left. Step point uwehe. Step point ‘uwhehe. Ka‘o. Ka‘o.” Wow, okay. If I can follow how she’s doing it without falling over... Kaholo means travel. Oh yeah, Uncle Danny went holo holo. Now we get fish tonight! ‘Uwehe means lift the heels while opening the knees. Ka‘o means sway. Ka‘o. Ka‘o. Just knowing the names of the steps is reassuring. But the most reassuring thing is the knowing the kumu. Kumu hula means source of the knowledge of hula. One step at a time, I follow the kumu out of the gulch.
I’m dancing hula because of my teachers. I’ve met other teachers, powerful, charismatic kumus I respect and love, but at the time, I wasn’t entertaining the idea that one day I would learn hula. I wasn’t ready. Kumu Kaui and Michael came into my life at the perfect time, when I wanted to learn.
I’m dancing hula because I’m three score and five and I know learning to dance is good for me. I know the foundation of dance is rhythm. I just assumed some people have it and I don’t. Discovering I could actually follow it? That was like discovering the moon always rises in the east, something else I waited until I was over 60 to find out. I noticed the waxing and waning, all right. I knew the moon played with the ebb and flow of the tides and tugged at the blood flow of women. Other than that, my knowledge of the moon’s movements gets a little hazy, just like my knowledge of women. Sometimes 28 days in a month, sometimes 30, sometimes over there, sometimes over here. I’m like a mynah bird with my head spinning. What the? Where the? O mysterious moon, there you are. How beautiful. I think I’ll write a poem.
I’m dancing hula because I’m finally getting out of my own head and touching the ground with my feet, to the beat. You know how many years I thought dancing was leaping around to crazy Irish music, with fiddles, flutes, uilleann pipes and goatskin bodhran? Skiddledy doo die doh die day. Man, I was free form, with the help of the Guinness, of course.
O mysterious dance! Okay Uncle Mike, we’re gonna learn the hands. The mist. The eyelashes. The smell. The throat. The slippery ground. Watch out! Learning Ka Ua O Nu‘uanu was a good first dance for me to learn start to finish, because each verse talks about one of the senses and that’s what hula’s about, expressing everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch—Kumu Kaui adds a sixth sense—and feel. But move your hands and arms one way and your feet another? Once again, I’m an air head in an air sign learning to pay attention. I’m embarrassed. I’m uncoordinated. I’m totally lost.
Thankfully, there’s repetition, there’s a pattern, with the faithful, consistent beat of the music. Right, one, two, three; left, one, two, three. And, there’s the faithful, consistent heartbeats of my teachers. I keep coming back to class because my two teachers, Kumu Kaui and Michael, her ‘alaka‘i, make it safe. I keep coming back because each of them has their own special style of mastery mixed with humor, humility and honesty. And yet, each teacher wields authority. They expect their haumana, their students, to fulfill their vision, dance by dance. I have only an inkling of my teachers’ hula knowledge and creativity, but I see how generous they are with their precious time and respect them for it. They’re both dedicated to their families, jobs and despite their very busy lives, both are genuinely dedicated to teaching three generations of students. This motivates me.
I am dancing hula because it keeps changing for me. Hula is not a fixed thing. Hula is fluid, like the ocean. Hula moves, like the signature of trees and plants in the wind. I’m not just talking about the three to four minutes of gestures and movements of choreography. I’m referring to the way of life that keeps hula alive. They say the sacred and profane hula dancing was separated out, back in the 19th century, but I feel Kumu reaches into the songs and stories, old and new, and creates a dance. If hula stayed the same, if we got it in three easy lessons, would anyone continue? I can say, first the feet, then the hands. But it’s not that simple. One day, Kealoha said to me, “Listen to the story.” No matter how many times your wife or your teacher tells you listen to the story, you don’t get it. Then one day, carefully enunciating his words, Kealoha says, “Listen to the story.” Since he told me that, our small group of kane has danced Makakilo in front of hundreds of people down at the Sheraton Keauhou for the Kupuna Hula Festival. Our own band played and sang behind us as we faced into the bright lights. When I heard “Kaulana,” I reached my arms out full length at a right angle, without thinking. When I heard “Huli akou,” I held one hand like a blade close to my chest and reached out with my other arm, before turning, and turning again. There’s no thinking, as such. It’s a listening like I’ve never experienced before. You don’t get lost because the story guides you. And you know what to do as the story unfolds because you learned the choreography given by the kumu and you practiced, over and over. I know the principle behind rehearsal, having worked backstage in theatre for so many years, but never experienced its outcome like this, in performance. Also, you dance alone and together with your hula brothers and sisters, both at the same time.
Then there’s the kauna, the meaning of the story. When Charlotte and I visited Nu‘uanu on O‘ahu, because we were learning the dance, the taxi driver waited while we explored the area around the overlook. The site is renowned for the way Kamehameha I forced an entire army to their deaths over the pali. For me, it was hard to reconcile smiling and dancing vigorously through the song with this historical event. But when we were up there looking out across the far reaches of the windward side, a thousand feet below, it started raining, and I understood we all have this long history of struggle that brings us to the present moment, that this history now mingles with the elements, that we need to be aware, that we need to bring our senses alive to the elements in this place, in this story. I don’t even know if I have a right to this interpretation, but it helps me reconcile these things. It helps me understand that the dance brings the stories to life.
I am dancing hula, therefore, because I live in Hawai‘i. Human settlement and conquest has moved across our planet to such an extent that much of our history is incomplete. Here in Hawai‘i we have a chance to learn about this place through the hula. Of course, this includes the language. Only the other day, Kealoha was saying if you take the word kanelehua apart, you won’t find the special rain of Hilo. The poetry of Hawai‘i is a mingling of ʻāina, ʻōlelo and hula and much else I’m unfamiliar with. I used to think, the last thing I’d ever want to be is one haole guy dancing hula up onstage, but I’m a human being in a certain place, looking out for the first time at the mountains, tasting the salt water along the shore, smelling the faint scent of lehua, touching the heavy morning dew this time of year with my fingers, hearing the shrill cry of a lone io above our place in Kohala, where the winds blow every which way.