Paradise, Hawaiian Style

January 27, 1995|By TaNoah V. Sterling | TaNoah V. Sterling,Sun Staff Writer

Sharon Mech has found paradise in Katherine Nakamura's basement in Pasadena, where she learned the hula and other Polynesian dance forms. The 48-year-old court reporter from Severna Park says the dances help her to relax.

"It's peaceful," she explained. "It's something that just sort of takes you away to another place. More than anything sometimes I just look forward to having that Tuesday night class with her."

Mrs. Nakamura has been teaching Polynesian dances from her house on Riverside Drive since 1975. She has about 24 students, mostly teens and children, who take weekly, two-hour lessons.

She has turned her basement into her halau, or hula house, filled with pictures of Hawaii, native statues, leis and ornaments used in the dances. In addition to dances, she teaches the history, tradition and culture of Hawaii. And she occasionally prepares a Hawaiian dish for the students in her Hawai'i Aloha Lu'au Dance Studio.

Mrs. Nakamura grew up in Baltimore but moved to Hawaii in the 1970s to work for the National Security Agency. While she was there, she learned the dances and culture from a traditional halau. She returned to the mainland in 1975 and settled in Pasadena.

She began teaching relatives the hula, and the dance studio blossomed from there.

Mrs. Nakamura said it is important to teach hula in a traditional way because the dance is such an integral part of Hawaiian culture.

"Hula acted as the repository of their religious, their historical, and their geographical life," Mrs. Nakamura said. "They made a chant every time a royal child was born, every time they discovered a new land, every time there was a battle."

The dances and chants were used to tell stories. While someone is singing or chanting, the dancers use their movements as a type of sign language to portray the action in the story.

"The music and rhythm and the words go together," she said.

And, because native Hawaiians did not have a written language, words pronounced properly in the chants were important. "If they mispronounced a word or misstated a work, that could be a death penalty," Mrs. Nakamura said.

In modern-day competitions, dance groups are judged on their chants and songs, and on the quality of the dancing and propriety of costumes. Groups receive low scores if they wear a flower that had not been introduced at the time the chant was created.

Mrs. Nakamura and her top students have started to prepare for a contest in October on the islands of Maui and Hawaii. They are learning a dance to a required ancient chant, and Mrs. Nakamura has written the original chant that her dancers will learn.

Her students say they enjoy the authenticity and tradition Mrs. Nakamura passes along.

"She doesn't teach Hollywood hula," Ms. Mech said. "You don't see any rhinestones."

Beverly Schmauder, who enrolled with her daughter in classes, agrees. She and her daughter were born and reared in Hawaii.

"The class is a link to our birthplace," she said. "Although we're not Hawaiian, it's a cultural link that I think is important for everyone to follow. She really just delves into the culture."

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