Under the gaze of Hawaiian gods, school turns stumble-feet into hula dancers Students to compete at Honolulu festival

July 12, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

In the basement of Les and Kas Nakamura's home, Laka the hula goddess presides.

Represented by a block of softwood wrapped in yellow tapa VTC cloth, Laka sits on her altar next to the wooden figure of Lono the god of life and a bunch of ilima flowers, three conch shells and an unopened bottle of 86-proof Hawaiian whiskey.

Nobody drinks the booze, and "we do not pray to the hula goddess," said Ms. Nakamura. Her hula school, Hawaii Aloha Luau Services in Pasadena, doesn't endorse drinking or any religion.

Perhaps not, but every week the faithful do gather here in Anne Arundel County to offer devotions: hours of practice in the sways, steps, chants and hand gestures of the ancient folk dance.

For their trouble, many of them will fly to Honolulu in November to compete for cash prizes in the World Invitational Hula Festival.

The Pasadena dancers, whose school was one of only 14 chosen for the three-day festival, will compete with hula mavens from three foreign countries and four other states, including Hawaii, in solo and group dances and chants.

"They sent us the application in the mail," said Ms. Nakamura, a South Baltimore native who runs the hula school, or halau, with her husband, who was born and raised on Oahu. "I said, 'I'll apply, but I don't see how we can be chosen.' "

But the school's hula video impressed the committee that chose Hawaii Aloha Luau from 216 applicants, said Courtney Harrington, who is coordinating the festival for the sponsor, a cultural and environmental foundation in Honolulu. The dancers obviously know their hula, he said, and the lobbying by the Nakamuras didn't hurt, either.

"They showed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm," said Mr. Harrington, a former television newsman from Honolulu. "A lot of faxes, phone calls."

The invitation is an honor for the halau, which was formally dedicated in October 1990, although Ms. Nakamura has been teaching hula since the late 1970s when she returned from three years in Honolulu.

Until she moved to Hawaii in 1972 to work for the Department of Defense, she despaired over seeming to have two left feet. She could not dance a step, she said, but she was pleased to discover that she sure could hula.

"Hula was different," said Ms. Nakamura.

Before, she could never connect the music and the motion. Hula brought the two together. That's because the steps and the gestures of hula, especially the modern version, are performed to interpret the lyrics of a song. When the lyrics describe winding roads, the dancers make snaking motions with their hands; when they mention numbers, the dancers flash numbers with their fingers.

It might look to the casual observer like the sort of hand movements made famous in Motown by the Temptations, but hula requires lots of practice.

In ancient Hawaii, hula students were trained under strict discipline while secluded from other villagers in long thatched huts called halau hula. The folk dance was performed to honor the gods, who were represented in the halau by an altar decorated with greenery gathered in the mountains.

The gods also look on from the altar in the basement on Riverside Drive, although the working conditions there are less severe.

Ms. Nakamura offers classes two and sometimes three times a week to 25 students whose ages range from 11 to the mid-50s.

The most accomplished dancers go on the road to perform hula shows. They're booked every weekend through October, Mr. Nakamura said, with summer shows in Washington, Virginia and New Jersey.

On a recent Wednesday night, 12 students -- 10 women and girls, two young men -- practiced a modern hula and an ancient chant to the rhythm of a drum.

The World Invitational includes competition for modern and ancient hula, with panels of judges considering the contestants' moves, facial expressions, Hawaiian pronunciation and costume.

If the costume or facial expressions don't fit the content of the hula, "you're dead" in a competition, said Mr. Nakamura.

Student Gerald Tiqui of Glen Burnie is used to the hard knocks of hula. A 28-year-old native of Oahu who works at Goddard Space Flight Center, Mr. Tiqui is quick to point out that there is more to hula than a lot of feminine hip-swaying.

"In Hawaii, it's a masculine thing" as well, he said, with dances for men choreographed with sharper, more aggressive moves.

Mr. Tiqui specializes in the most macho form of hula, the Samoan fire-knife dance, which women are forbidden to perform.

From a recent performance he has a fresh, purple knife burn on his right thigh. He points out an old burn scar on his left arm and proudly lifts his shirt to show another on his chest.

"If you don't get burned, you're not a fire-knife dancer," Mr. Tiqui said, smiling.

Surely the gods would be impressed.

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