|Story by Liza Simon
Photos by Jack Wolford
High on Potrero Hill
in San Francisco, Victorian-style homes hang between the watery horizon and the fogshrouded profile of Mount Diablo. This vertigo-inducing city, celebrated birthplace of counterculture movements, truly is on the edge in every sense. No surprise then that kumu
Patrick Makuakane, famed for his campy, consciousness-raising hula showcases, has made this avant-garde spawning ground his home.
An elderly stranger on the sidewalk smiles broadly and points me to Daniel Webster Elementary School, the modest home of Makuakane’s great hula experiment. Inside, I am embraced by students of Makuakane’s halau, Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, and then by the master himself, who sighs incredulously that the halau is readying for its twenty-fifth anniversary performance in a venue expected to sell out its 6,000 seats. From the easygoing pace of rehearsal, I’d never have guessed such a high-stakes spectacle was near. Makuakane perches on the auditorium stage, laughing and strumming an ‘ukulele. Students have piled their shoes neatly at the door just like in Hawai‘i, but they sport hooded sweatshirts to fend off the notorious SF chill.
Makuakane leans his head languidly to the side and demos the sultry gaze he wants the women dancers to assume in the number “Fever”; he’s set the old Peggy Lee torch song to hula. In the next number, a traditional Hawaiian mele about Mount Ka‘ala, his vibrato chant creates a mood of majesty. “May I ask you not to dance in isolation?” he implores the group at one point, though the dancers look to be impeccably in unison, all the more amazing since they are a motley group of ethnicities, ages and body types, not to mention professions. A banker, an acupuncturist, a fireman, a publishing assistant: We gather after at Makuakane’s apartment and, over Chinese takeout, talk about the halau that gave them all a chance to perform at Lincoln Center.
Two days later I am on my way to visit Mark Keali‘i Ho‘omalu, another icon of hula in the Bay Area. He is on the other side of the bay, in the working-class suburb of Hayward, where he directs classes and a performance troupe at the Academy of Hawaiian Arts. Like Makuakane, Ho‘omalu is Native Hawaiian, originally from O‘ahu but now ensconced in the East Bay. He does his adopted hometown proud at Hilo’s annual Merrie Monarch Festival where, with his dark glasses and bad-boy image, he proves that a California halau can more than hold its own.
In Hayward, over plates of beef stew, Ho‘omalu shrugs off his Merrie Monarch reputation, saying, “The judges like spank me.” Then it’s on to an evening rehearsal, where students again line up to greet me. Ho‘omalu directs one to give me a skirt and sweatshirt so I can join the warm-up; it has an intensity I will feel for days after. Ho‘omalu chainsmokes as he sets up his microphone next to his pahu drum; when he begins, the reverberation of his chant soars in the studio’s rafters, producing a sound akin to a didgeridoo. The chant drives male and female dancers, each of whom performs with fierce athleticism. In various numbers the dancers wield spears and paddles with steadfast precision—or so it again seems to my apparently untutored eye. “Don’t give me that,” Ho‘omalu chides them for a mistake. But they are unflappable. “This is not poppies and puppies,” one of the kane (male) dancers says with a hearty laugh. The students are full of praise for Kumu Mark’s lessons. “Work, family, hula … It’s a great life,” says one dancer.