Island dances at library display Hawaiian culture

July 30, 1999|By Lourdes Sullivan | Lourdes Sullivan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE SAVAGE library was briefly transformed into a tropical paradise Tuesday by the melodious songs and graceful dances of Hawaii. Jessie Schlotterbeck, 12, known as Makakehau in Hawaiian, Ryan Shimabukuro, 7, known as Kuliakanuu and Kane Shimabukuro, 4, known as Keanuenue, performed traditional dances of the islands for 45 minutes that afternoon.

Among the dances were a Hawaiian war chant, a lively dance that featured a feather rattle and was performed while kneeling. Kane danced alone with a double gourd -- a drum made of two gourds -- while describing an owl's journey to a ship and what he sees in his travels.

The three also performed Lili'u kahiko, a dance about the last queen of Hawaii, praising her beauty by describing her sparkling eyes, her dimpled knees, her round cheeks and stately shoulders. Traditional Hawaiian culture found grace in larger women.

Jessie then taught the audience a simple dance describing the beach. Everyone stood up to practice with her.

Rita Snyder, one of the children's librarians, said the audience was among the best behaved she has seen. Observers were entranced by the young performers.

After the dancing, librarians and teen volunteers Malika Reid, Marsha Johnson, Effie Koutsogianni, Cameron Sadiq and Emily Barlow helped the audience make paper and straw leis with dangling candies as a souvenir of this short cultural "trip" to the 50th state. Thanks to volunteer Zeeshan Sadiq and Daniel Hunter for their help getting the lei kits together.

The dancers have family ties to our area and to the island state. Ryan and Kane, whose mother, Kelly, is the assistant branch manager of the east Columbia library, have a grandfather in Hawaii. Margo Schlotterbeck, Jessie's mother, moved here as a child from her home state. Schlotterbeck, now a Laurel resident, so missed Hawaii that she and longtime childhood friend Kuulei Stockman formed their own hula school in Springfield, Va.

Margo Schlotterbeck says hula dancing is a lot harder than it looks. "The children are all great skiers," she says. "Hula uses the same position [body weight over heels, knees bent] that are used in skiing."

Schlotterbeck began taking dance lessons when she was 10. But it wasn't until she had children of her own that she returned so actively to her mother's culture. She began a school, Hulau o Aulani, in 1994 and applied for nonprofit status the next year. The name means School of Messenger, and the owners decided on the name because that's what they think the school does.

"Figuratively, we feel it means the children are the messengers for the culture and they are the vessels we have chosen to perpetuate the culture," Schlotterbeck says.

Hula dancing comes in two forms and is defined by the music that accompanies it. Kahiko is the more ancient form, using only percussion instruments such as rattles and drums. Awana dancing is performed to stringed instruments such as the ukulele and the guitar.

Both types of dancing are integral to Hawaiian culture. Often, the dances evoke a religious myth or refer to sacred places on the islands.

Particular gestures can even look a bit like sign language. Waving arms represent the sea, upraised ones refer to the sky and lower body movements to the earth.

In alternate years, the school sponsors a trip to Hawaii. Last year, the students stayed for two weeks at the University of Hawaii on Oahu (the main island) while learning about Hawaiian history and culture.

Among the sites they visited were Iolani Palace, the royal residence where the last queen, Liliuokalani, lived under house arrest after her reign ended in 1893. Her subjects smuggled in news of the area by wrapping her daily delivery of flowers in local newspapers.

The students also visited sites referred to in the dances, and they gained a better appreciation of their familys' culture. They even planted taro, the plant used to make poi, the staple of any luau.

A biennial trip is not enough to keep a culture alive in the hearts of the homesick. The school acts as a social center for a few dozen families, Schlotterbeck says. Many of her students are the children of islanders, like herself, who found themselves living far from home.

"It's an avenue for the family to socialize with people who have the same background, the same frame of reference, the same foods and songs, perhaps the same uncles. It's a cultural thing; the farther you are from home, the greater the hunger to find ways to be closer to it. You gravitate to the people who share the food, the music, the culture and the dance," she said.

The school doesn't hoard its cultural heritage. Not only did members come to the library to perform, but they have been seen at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The school was invited to perform at the center's The Very Special Arts, a performance geared toward special-needs children. They created a performance with more aspects of sign language. The school has also performed at the Taste of DC festival and other regional venues.

Its annual fund-raiser and party will be held in Accokeek on from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 21. Dancing and a luau, featuring kalua pig, poi and other traditional fare, are planned.

Information: Donna Hirabayashi, 703-318-8531.

Anyone interested in learning more about Hawaiian culture can venture to the school's Web site at http: //www.halauoaulani.org.

Pub Date: 7/30/99

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