It’s Black Friday in Honolulu, and a shopping frenzy has overtaken much of the city. But on a quiet street in Kaimuki, the oldest active kumu hula alive today are teaching the hula, just as they have for more than seventy years—and I’m here to meet them. In an old building above the Hawaiian National Bank, the Alama sisters greet me, both of them barefoot and smiling.
Inside her brightly lit studio, younger sister Puanani kindly offers me a chair in front of a dozen small windows. She is dressed in an animal-print blouse and gold jewelry. Her sister Leilani wears a black Asian-print brocade jacket and twirls a small heirloom pendant between her fingers. Leilani tells me she’s just returned from the hairdresser and that at 87 years old she still teaches hula five days a week in the same studio she opened in 1943, when she was just 18.
As the two talk about the “old days,” Puanani holds Leilani’s hand and gazes lovingly at her sister. Their lives would have been very different, Puanani says, if they hadn’t danced all these years. “Look at me,” she says as if her walking cane was nothing more than an accessory, like her gold bangle. “I’m 82. I’ve had a double mastectomy but I still have my work. If we wouldn’t have had the hula all these years, I’m not sure we would be doing as well as we are. The hula pushes us. Even if we are ill, even if we are sore, even if we are tired, we still come up and teach. Hula has provided us with life.”