The dancers shimmied and swayed, their graceful movements framed by a backdrop of palm trees and a fiery sun. Sweet sounds of ukulele music floated through the air. The only thing missing was white sand and a tropical breeze.
Ku’ulei Silva Johnson’s students had gathered in her backyard to demonstrate what they’ve been learning at her studio, Halau Hula O’ Ku’ulei.
Johnson left her native Hawaii in 1987 to follow her husband to the mainland. When they moved to Spokane she found a large community of homesick Hawaiians and decided to offer hula lessons in her North Side home. Her students range in age from 6 to 76.
And they learn more than just dance. “All my commands are in Hawaiian,” Johnson said, smiling. “They learn colors, steps and history – all in Hawaiian.”
They also discover what it means when their instructor puts up her long, dark hair. Johnson laughed. “When you see my hair up it means we’re going to work.”
Make no mistake – those seemingly effortless smooth moves require strength, agility and endurance.
“It’s very physical,” said student Kate Miller, 50. “But you can’t let anybody see you sweat!” She grinned. “I think it’s going to keep me young.”
Malee Ikahihifo, 7, confided, “I like how you move your hips.”
But while many notice the graceful hip swaying, the heart of hula is actually in the hands. Johnson explained, “The hands really tell the story.”
And hula is all about stories. Each dance, along with the accompanying song or chant, called a mele, tells a story. Every hand motion or body movement has a precise meaning and represents an object, action or idea from the story. Because ancient Hawaiians had no written language, the hula served as a method of remembering, recording, and passing on cultural information, genealogies, legends and traditions.
Johnson teaches both the ancient form of the dance, hula kahiko, and its modern equivalent, hula auana.
Hula kahiko developed long before any Western influences reached the islands. It’s characterized by chants and traditional instruments, such as the gourd drums called ipu.
Johnson grabbed her ipu as she prepared to accompany her dancers. “It’s my baby,” she said, stroking the double gourd’s smooth golden surface. “I take it everywhere I go.”
Wearing traditional muumuus with garlands adorning their heads, ankles and wrists, the dancers stomped and chanted.
Kelsey Bergmann, 9, twirled her own muumuu while she watched the adults. “My favorite thing is the nice dresses,” she said.
For Johnson, hula is a way to educate others about the rich history and traditions of Hawaii. “We don’t want to forget our heritage,” she said.
In addition, hula has become a way for her to give back to the community. “My hula troupe does a lot of service work.”
They perform at the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in area retirement homes and at various fundraisers. In March, the group performed at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox before the Spokane Symphony’s show with the Brothers Cazimero.
Hula can be many things from fierce and funny to sensual and romantic. On a recent summer evening, Johnson assembled her advanced class to perform a hula auana and narrated the story as they danced.
E Pili Mai is the tale of young Hawaiian man who journeys to the mountains of Kauai. He gathers and burns a sacred wood at the top of the mountain and then catches the burning embers in his hands as they fall to the ground below – all to prove his love to his sweetheart. The lyrics say, “The night is cold and I’m alone. Sweetheart mine, come to me.”
As the last echoes of the song faded, dancer Faye Lisa Kraus beamed. Kraus is from Hawaii. She joined Johnson’s troupe four years ago. “Hawaii is still my home,” she said. “This is a way to keep Hawaii in my heart.”