Thursday, December 30, 2010

Lessons from Hula

I'd be jumping for joy in my first hula lessons, but it wouldn't be graceful.  Learning steps whose names sound like a mouthful of vowels, and combining them with hand motions that tell a story is akin for me to patting my head while rubbing my stomach. But this substitute exercise is teaching lessons quite different from my usual Step and Pilates classes.

First of all, I see how seriously Hawaiians take this art form.  It's not just beautiful dance, but actually a means of oral history.  Before contact with Captain Cook in 1797, the Hawaiian people had no written language.  The particular hula I'm learning tells of a now-inaccessible waterfall on the island of Kaua'i, and one of the enacted lyrics admonishes listeners never to forget that place.  My hula teacher, whose name is Napualei, tells me to focus on conveying the meaning of the words, and that will help me with the proper hand motions and steps, which are like graceful Charades.

But it's not so easy.  Some of the steps require considerable agility.  One of them with a Hawaiian name that sounds to me like "oh-oo-oh-oo-ahh-ee," requires (with constantly bended knees) lifting a foot then quickly bending both knees further, shifting to the other foot, lifting, and bending both knees, in such rapid succession (with swaying hips), double time, that I feel like Klutz of the Year. But it sure is fun.

Then, there are the head moves.  Since you're an oral historian, you've got to be earnest about this. It's fact; hula's messages must be believed and preserved.  So you keep your eyes on the hands. You're stepping right, you look...left, because usually your hands are over there. Keep those knees bent. Sway those hips in the proper direction. Fingers together, thumbs in line! Elbows up, arms at mid-chest...this gets complicated.

So the lesson for me is humility. Not just because I'm so bad at this, feeling like an awkward little kid, but because I learned that the Hawaiian culture is disciplined.  I'd had a less-than-complimentary view, when observing the homeless' tarp-covered heaps, road improvements that take years, my local friend's ideas to solve community problems ignored, unions' impact on elections, and a laid-back, not-crisp attitude about time.  But the islanders who originally populated this region must have had incredible paddling skills, self-selected fom the hardiest and most inquisitive of their original populations.  They developed this detailed, precise means to communicate, with its own language far beyond the usual depictions of tribal chanting and jumping.

Now, hula changed after Europeans came to Hawaii.  Beforehand, it was used not only to praise kings but as a religious observance--and the natives had all sorts of animistic gods to appease. In fact, it's said that hula was invented by the goddess Laka, to please the big Volcano guy Pele.  Hawaiians had human sacrifice; at the Mo’okini Heiau on the Big Island, it's said thousands died to placate the god Ku.  In some cases, performing a hula for a ruler flawlessly could be a matter of life and death.

For me, an eager tourist embracing all the local color in this vibrantly brilliant place, hula is exercise, it's culture, it's something to study and learn and admire.

The other day, a friend born here on Oahu ("the gathering place") brought together many visiting friends for a lovely picnic.  Her 85-year-old mom played the ukulele and regaled us in a rich, melodious voice with traditional hula songs (she'd been a hula star in her younger years).  And as she sang, my friend, who had taken hula lessons since her early childhood, told the stories with her hands, singing harmonies, her body undulating rhythmically and effortlessly.

And what is the content of most modern hula songs ("mele")?  The inescapable beauty of the environment.  Lush forests, several types of rain, each with its own term and motion, stark mountains that jut upward like a dimetrodon dinosaur's spine, waterfalls, sunsets and rainbows.

That is the most salient lesson of hula for me:  Appreciation for the gifts of the senses surrounding me here in this God-blessed place.  Where plump pink guavas fall from trees overhanging highways; where the round orange sun setting into the sea produces the fabled "green flash" of life in the dying light. Where even strong rain feels like playful tickles because the air is so caressingly warm, day and night.  Where fish blaze with stunning colors and whimsical shapes and blithely ignore snorklers.  And where I can doff my thermal underwear and heavy boots to feel the silky sand of Waimanalo beach hugging my toes.  The surf is the sway of the hula. The cooing turtledoves in the morning the voice of Popo, my friend's mom, describing the scene in song.

In that sense, hula is still a religious experience, because the beauties of nature connect us most directly to God, their source.  Wading in the green and aqua water reminds us of our vulnerability, and watching North Shore surfers brings respect for the strength and power of the tides. Temperatures consistently comfortable let us enjoy and connect with each aspect of the natural world far better than huddling in parkas, or inside a well-heated house.

 Here in Hawaii, where car license plates feature the colorful arc, the Double Rainbow guy's comment holds: "it's so intense!" And to answer his question, "what does it MEAN?", it's a delightful and important reminder of our tiny place in this brilliant universe.


  1. LOVELY HULA HANDS-That's you, you wickedly wonderful wahine! So glad you're "tasting" this special "local flavor" of Hawaii on this trip. For the record, Pele is usually depicted as a woman with fiery lava locks-you may be thinking of the male soccer star :o) ... and Popo just turned 86 this past October (she demands credit for EVERY year!). Enjoy the rest of your sunny time there while we shiver here on the Mainland! HAU'OLI MAKAHIKI HOU with much love!

  2. Great analysis of something that most tourists see, admire, and forget. I wouldn't mind seeing more Hawaii pictures. Is your camera doing the job? You're much missed here on the 'small island'.
    Rabbi Daniel Lapin