Say Aloha to Hawaiian Hula Dance
Bring the Islands to You
Ah, the hula. If you've ever been to Hawaii you have undoubtedly enjoyed the exotic, hip-swaying dance called "hula." Beautiful island women (and men) tell stories and "act out" the music through dance steps, particularly their graceful arm movements.
The musical accompaniment is distinctly Hawaiian -- lilting melodies featuring ukulele, guitar and bass guitar. Some songs are punctuated by the dancers banging conga-like gourd drums or rhythmically tapping together long sticks.
But hula is not just an island treat. It's readily available stateside, as well. The dancers likely won't be wearing grass skirts and coconut bras, or even playing their own ukuleles. But the dances are authentic and the effect is quite hypnotic (even without any Blue Hawaiis, Coco Locos or spit roast pig for ambiance).
Expanding Cultural Horizons
Today I had the opportunity to attend a celebration of Hawaiian culture, music and dance. Now I must admit, my taste in performing arts generally runs much closer to avant garde live theatre and the occasional ballet (e.g., my annual trip to the Nutracker). If I'm going to a "concert" it's usually either a rock 'n roll band or the philharmonic.
But a dear friend of mine has been taking hula lessons. Whenever I see her she gushes about how much she's enjoying her "hula halau" (halau means school or academy), the Ohana Dance Group out of Sacramento. She's been rehearsing for weeks. So I decided to go and be supportive.
I was more than pleasantly surprised. The concert was absolutely delightful.
CDs by Faith Ako
Main Attraction: Faith Ako
The centerpiece of the concert was Faith Ako, a very talented singer whose banter with the audience showed her to be the consummate professional. She introduced herself as being from "Island Santa Rosa" and her musicians from "Island Livermore" and "Island Berkeley" (a little Hawaii humor -- these are obviously SF Bay Area cities).
Faith Ako's first CD release, "Ku Kahi" won the 2007 Hawaii Music Award for Traditional Hawaiian Music and New Artist of the Year. It was also nominated for a Na Hoku Hanohano award.
I mention this only because for me, this was very much a "who knew?" kind of experience. Who knew there were Hawaiian singers besides Don Ho (of "Tiny Bubbles" fame)? Who would have guessed there'd be one living in the next town over from my brother? And who knew they had music awards specifically for Hawaiian traditional music? Certainly not me!
You Don't Have to be Hawaiian to Dance the Hula
Besides being thoroughly impressed with Faith Ako, another thing that struck me was the number of Caucasian dancers. And I don't only mean white women, but also white men! This was really eye-opening for me. I wondered what attracted them to the traditional dance of the Hawaiian Islands. Some were obviously mixed couples. That only makes sense -- a native wife introducing her husband to her culture and inviting him to participate in its expression on stage. But there was one family of tall blondes that stood out -- father, mother, daughter and teen son. The son didn't look entirely thrilled with his part, but he gamely shook his butt along with the ladies. That kid definitely got my vote for bravest warrior of the day.
Now why would this phenomenon fascinate me so much? I can only surmise that my personal experience (admittedly limited to one visit to Maui) imprinted on my mind that Hawaiians dance the hula. Just as, by and large, those who perform Irish step dancing tend to be Irish (and not Hawaiian) or Taiko drummers tend to be Japanese, not Italian, Polish or Lithuanian!
But I'm getting too hung up on a technical detail. Back to the dancing itself.
The performance began with the traditional Hawaiian conch shell blowing. All dancers paraded in through the auditorium singing. It reminded me of the processional into church; the singing very chant-like.
With each new song a different combination of dancers took the stage. How wonderful to see such a range of ages -- women in their 20s dancing side-by-side with grandmothers. Each number required its own color scheme. All dancers might be attired in floral sheaths of the same fabric with contrasting leis (flower necklace), or in a rainbow of colors; one dancer in red, one in purple and one in yellow.
It bears noting that these dancers did not wear grass skirts or coconut bras. There was nary a bare midriff to be found! However, all of the dancers, both male and female, were barefoot.
One of my favorite numbers -- for sheer novelty -- was the "Firemen's Hula." Instead of floral dresses, the dancers wore navy blue pants, white collared short-sleeved shirts and silver badges, simulating firemen. You could tell by their arm movements (lots of chopping motions) the song had to do with fighting fires.
Another fun number featured three couples. The women danced seductively in unison while their partners mostly looked on appreciatively. Again, I don't know what the lyrics said, but the dance moves suggested a good-natured mating ritual. The audience whistled and hooted. At the end, Faith Ako proclaimed, "Now that dance was sassy!"
A True Performing Art
Needless to say, I didn't understand a single word of the singing. But that's ok. The spirit of Hawaiian music is universal. And very, very soothing (with a few uptempo songs for variety).
By the end of the afternoon I felt a new appreciation for the pageantry of the performance and the art of hula dancing.
Seeing the Ohana Dance Group and listening to Faith Akso made me want to learn more about Hawaiian culture.
The experience was incredibly rich and stimulating -- actually right up there with a good ballet or opera. I can only imagine how much more moving it would be with an understanding of what the dance moves actually mean!
Hula -- California Style!
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Ohana Dance Group
Faith Ako's website
- Internet Home of Faith Ako
Faith Ako plays a magical blend of traditional hawaiian and contemporary music for San Francisco Bay Area audiences. She also plays motown, rock, and soft jazz.
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