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Vol. 14, no. 5
October/November 2011


E Makaukau! 

Story by Deborah Boehm

Photos by Ben Simmons


Japan's decades-long affection for hula has blossomed into a full-blown romance, with thousands of practitioners throughout the country like hula teacher Kikue Nishi (pictured here).
“Sensei! Sensei! Yoshiwara Senseiiiii!!!”
Japanese concert audiences are usually rather decorous, but the audience at Tokyo’s posh Mel-Park Hall tonight is behaving more like transplants from a Beatles-at- Budokan concert, circa 1965. Young hula students in the upper balcony shout the names of their beloved teachers, while down front in the primo seats, imaginatively dressed women wave pastel-colored light sabers above their heads in time with the music.


 “Ah-a-ah, torihada [chicken skin]!” exclaims Teruko Suzuki, a hula aficionado from Shizuoka, as a holoku-clad troupe of Japanese dancers undulates across the stage in perfect sync to the tune of “Kawika.” The audience knows all the songs, and every falsetto trill and ‘ukulele riff earns loud applause. At one point a solo dancer— stunning in sleek yellow satin with faux lei of maile vine and ‘ilima blossoms— glides elegantly onstage, sinuous as smoke, and the balcony schoolgirls go berserk. “Sensei!!!” they scream. “Ganbatte! [Knock ’em dead!]”


 This sold-out performance, which features hundreds of amateur dancers from eighteen Tokyo-area halau (schools), is one of twenty or so organized and emceed annually by a vivacious Japanese hula teacher, Saki Ochiai, and her dapper promoter-brother, Nagare Ochiai. (“I just choose the schools I like,” Saki explains.) There’s no charge for participation, but each halau must sell a large block of tickets, hence the partisan audiences and jam-packed venues.


 The dancers are accompanied by stellar visiting musicians—Na Palapalai, Natalie Ai Kamauu, Weldon Kekauoha—and there are guest performances of hula kahiko (ancient) and ‘auana (modern) by the Big Island’s masterful Halau o Kekuhi, with Auntie Nalani Kanaka‘ole chanting and singing. Her charismatic nephew, Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole, delights the audience with his spirited dancing, kolohe (mischievous) antics and comical coinages: “Mahalo gozaimashita,” he quips after one number, playfully mixing Hawaiian and Japanese expressions of thanks, and the mostly female crowd goes wild. After three lively hours all the participants, from tiny girls to stately dowagers, gather onstage to sing “Hawai‘i Aloha,” and the entire audience joins in.


 Afterward, out in the rococo lobby, ecstatic shoppers crowd around dozens of vendors of Hawai‘i-themed jewelry, bright pa‘u practice skirts, I ♥ HULA T-shirts and tiny bottles of tropical perfume. (A sweet floral scent, like the fragrance wafting from a plumeria on a breezy day in Manoa, permeates the entire hall.) Fans rush to be first in line to collect autographs from the Hawaiian dancers and musicians, who are only too happy to oblige. “Hula makes me happy in my heart,” beams Teruko Suzuki as she heads for the exit, her kapapatterned tote bag filled with gifts for her hula sisters in Shizuoka.


 The amazing thing is that this joyful, lavish event isn’t unusual; there’s probably a standing-room-only hula show or recital somewhere in Japan every day of the year.