Issue 15.5: October/November 2012

Hula U.

Story by Liza Simon

Photos by Elyse Butler


The world’s first and only college degree program in hula unfolds inside a Quonset hut, a relic of the Islands’ involvement in World War II. This is just fine with Professor Taupouri Tangaro, who directs the program at Hawai‘i Community College in Hilo. He doesn’t mind the frequent rat-a-tat of rain on the corrugated tin roof. That’s Hilo’s music, he laughs, referring to the town’s notoriously wet weather.


The amiable educator, who possesses a doctorate of philosophy and sports a trendy peroxided coif, is quite happy teaching Hawaiian dance in a space once reserved for military ops. When the university made several offers to build “real classrooms” to house the hula studies program, Tangaro replied that the Quonset hut was better because it had the open floor space of a true halau. Still, they persisted. They would replace the old cylindrical edifice if Tangaro would just give the okay. Instead he gave his final answer: “A lot of beauty can come out of ugly things. You have to believe in the power of transformation. Just trust me!”


In fact, it’s been “a long, long journey of trust,” Tangaro will explain later today. After ten years of effort by a team of indigenous scholars and a maze-like process of approvals, Hawai‘i Community College now offers four semesters leading to an Associate in Applied Science degree in hula. Hula had long been available elsewhere on campus: practice it as an elective in the music department, read and write about it in Hawaiian studies. But to just dance hula all the way to a college degree? There’s only one place in the world to do it, and that’s in Hilo.



Like the degree itself, the cloudless blue skies are exceptional on the day that I visit. It’s Sunday morning, and dancers have begun drifting in to the hut. Everyone here this morning is drawn from among the forty or so people who have now completed HawCC’s hula degree. The program’s graduates are a varied bunch. Some had never set foot on a college campus before beginning the program. Others pursued advanced degrees in other fields but “kept hula as their foundation,” as Tangaro says. The twelve or so students here today trade jokes, hugs and handshakes and begin the task of unspooling reams of kapa (bark cloth) for today’s special lesson on the ritual regalia of hula. Rituals have a distinct place in the hula degree curriculum: They are, says Tangaro, experiences to hone the body’s relationship with the outside world, whether that involves hiking into a forest in search of flowers for lei or letting loose a chant at a backyard party. Do your hula rituals with mindfulness and you enter into communion with your ancestors, he adds. And he clearly doesn’t mean only Hawaiian ancestors; students here today represent numerous ethnicities as well as ages and professions.


All of those here today were standouts in the program, so they’ve been invited to join a “post-grad” path that may put them on the road to becoming a kumu hula— in other words, a traditional hula teacher who has undergone an ‘uniki, an initiation into a specific halau tradition by one of its masters. To be very clear, earning the AAS degree won’t give you the grassroots gravitas to go out and start your own halau. Tangaro shows me his grading sheet. It’s pretty straight-ahead stuff, like one-through-five ratings on how well each student demonstrates things like “understanding lower body mechanics.” It’s clear that the ineffable and intuitive process of becoming a kumu can’t quite be reconciled with striving for a good GPA, “a point of tension,” Tangaro concedes, since the course is open to anyone with the necessary prerequisites. “We can’t control what someone does with the curriculum after graduation,” says Tangaro, but he believes the best defense against the distortion of hula is to immerse students deep inside authentic experience. Students absorb their lessons not by rote but through robust practice. “So they don’t turn in papers or exams,” he says. “They get enough of that in chemistry or history. And what they discover, if they go deep enough, is that hula contains chemistry, history, math … It’s all in there. We started with the assumption that hula could raise the rigor of academics.” Make no mistake. Tangaro, whose doctoral dissertation offered a “heuristic investigation into hula ritual,” has a mind for scholarly study, but as a professor of hula he advocates for the body and soul to get into the act.



Right now the dancers practice a halau tradition and greet the visitor (that’s me) by lining up to embrace me, one by one. I am so moved by their welcome, not to mention the expansiveness of Tangaro’s conversation, that I ask if I may join in the warm-up. “Yes, but just don’t start jumping!” he quips, having perhaps seen newcomers mistake his provocative countenance for license to improvise. But from the first slap of the pahu drum, going airborne is out of the question. I follow the other dancers, mirroring postures that are wide and low, postures that free the hips and enable the flat of the feet to plow mightily. There is so much downward drive from the piko (navel) in this room that I feel like I am a piston in a V8 engine of human thighs.


“The outsider may see this style as rough and sweaty, but for us it means to prepare the body so that the environment dances through us,” says Tangaro. “Our bodies have to actually arrive at a particular temperature, because this style is associated with the volcanic traditions of Pele, and these traditions cannot speak through a cold body,” he continues, naming the deity whose powers of creation are visible in the magma and mists of Kilauea volcano less than an hour away up Highway 11. The hula style is ‘aiha‘a. Most of the dances we are doing here today go back hundreds of years, but Tangaro has re-choreographed them expressly for the HawCC curriculum in a manner he believes both upholds the ‘aiha‘a tradition and makes them accessible to the diverse population likely to register for the course. Perhaps as a recognition of the novelty of this experience, the hula degree curriculum has been named Unukupukupu, or “shrine of young ferns”: the first greenery to spring from the black moonscapes of lava.


As anyone who watches hula with any regularity knows, there are numerous forms of the dance. Citing the oft-repeated proverb that “all knowledge does not reside in one halau,” Tangaro notes that all are equal, but there are reasons that ‘aiha‘a has permeated the academic walls of HawCC—namely, that ‘aiha‘a is the signature style of Halau Kekuhi, the halau founded in Hilo more than half a century ago by the late Edith Kanaka‘ole. Dame Edith is honored today as a cultural heroine for many reasons, one of which was making it her business to break down barriers between academia and the native community. In the past, the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo neither admitted nor employed Native Hawaiians in numbers that were proportionate to their overall presence in the surrounding community. For those few Hawaiians who did crack the citadel, the experience could have its drawbacks. “It wasn’t that the native population was against education, but many felt they were being asked to give up their native identity to achieve education, or if they returned to their rural roots, it was with a sense of alienation,” recalls Tangaro.


Edith was prompted by this situation to initiate hula workshops at UH Hilo in the 1970s. “She felt it was her obligation to make it a Hawaiian place,” observes Tangaro. Edith’s efforts were initially met with criticism from some of her Hawaiian neighbors, who pointed out that hula had been repressed by missionaries and exploited by foreign entrepreneurs. “Why are you taking family knowledge to outsiders?” she was challenged. “Because,” Edith replied, “you never know who will carry it. You never know who the spirit will attach itself to.” That inclusiveness, says Tangaro, has also been the hallmark of Halau Kekuhi. He joined the group as a young adult and is today married to Edith’s granddaughter Kekuhi.


By all accounts, Edith had a gentle way of dispelling fears and misunderstandings. Before her death in 1979, she lived to see the Hawaiian Renaissance usher in the revival of Hawaiian customs and language and the global spread of halau hula. But twenty-one years after her passing, at a landmark hula conference in 2000, older kupuna grumbled that new hula enthusiasts were learning only choreography—just the form and nothing else. The kupuna who’d gathered resolved to build an awareness of hula as one of the world’s sacred dances.


Soon after, Pua Kanaka‘ole Kanahele, daughter of Edith and mother-in-law of Tangaro, began lobbying the university board of regents for a hula curriculum that would be based on “authentic foundations.” The program began in 2006, and its timing has been perfect: In 2009 came a university strategic plan calling for the stepped-up “indigenization” of college instruction. Under the strategic plan, more resources have been poured into Hawaiian language, history, environmental studies and into what are termed its “experiential” programs: Today hula is not the only degree with native roots offered at HawCC; students can also major in traditional Hawaiian farming and fishing. In addition, students can now enter the hula degree program at HawCC and opt to earn a two-year AA degree instead of an AAS degree. With the AA degree in hand, they can then transfer to UH Hilo or UH Manoa for another two years to complete a four-year degree in the major of their choice.



Today’s lesson, as noted, is focused on the ritual regalia of hula, or the ‘a‘ahu as it’s known. The students are learning to drape and twist layers of kapa cloth into shapes that have been prescribed by hula masters of the past, some seen only in three-hundred-year-old lithographs, others the invention of Edith Kanaka‘ole. “To us this is not a costume,” Tangaro emphasizes. “You have to have participation in your own dressing. We don’t get garments and slap them on.” He stops to advise the students, who are now working intently in pairs. “There is a science to this,” he says to one pair. “How do you get the edges so that they are round? How do you get it so that it’s not like two layers? It’s OK to talk to each other!”


This last directive is Tangaro being mirthful because the working pairs aren’t only talking, they’re getting physical. The recipient of the wrap flows with the other’s instructions, as if this class exercise were a pas de deux. This group, after all, regularly sweats buckets in unison. If there is any self-consciousness left in the room, Tangaro is a wily defuser. “How much cloth is needed for this tie?” one student asks. “That depends on the humidity of the day and, oh yes, your very own body size,” Tangaro replies. There is laughter. “Well, would you prefer if we were clones of one another?” he asks, his eyes dancing over the physiques before him. More laughter.


The hula degree curriculum requires students to hand-print the kapa cloth needed to create two pieces of ‘a‘ahu. To do this they immerse themselves in nature, look for colors and patterns they like, match them to store-bought fabric and then a process that Tangaro is inclined to call the “dream work of hula” really takes off.


“They have to carve out their own sacred space, and it takes weeks,” Tangaro says of the work that goes into the making of today’s cloth wraps. “When you pick up old practices, you activate all the ancestors in you who are familiar with the process, and all the knowledge in your body wakes up. We are not from the school that knowledge ends at death. It is transmigrational, it goes through the body systems, so when we create a style from antiquity, that ancestor is in the room with us and in our body, and when we print, all of our energies come into each step.”


As the dancers work, a breeze comes through the Quonset hut—just at the moment that Tangaro makes the lighthearted confession that the first time he danced in a pa‘u (the skirt-like ‘a‘ahu), “I just kinda freaked out.” He reminds students that the pa‘u allows the body to “amplify the dynamic of hula.” If all dancers have poured themselves into the ritual dress with the same vigor, then the highly individual designs will move in harmony. But if not? “We say if the ‘a‘ahu is not in alignment, there is a lesson for you. Things will fall off your body even if you have tied something tight.”


Lehua Kaulukukui, who has just finished braiding and tucking her partner’s pa‘u, tells me that in a previous hula life she danced in a halau with Tangaro. Then came the onslaught of career and household obligations plus a move to Kona, a three-hour drive away. When she finally reconnected with Tangaro and entered the AAS classes, she poured herself into hula and felt overjoyed by her lessons. “I was like a kid!” she laughs.



Students stand ready to road-test their new pa‘u. The wrap is known as a manu and is designed to resemble the platform of the double-hulled canoes the Hawaiians used in trans-Pacific voyages. Tangaro plays a gourd and unleashes a full-throated oli (chant). The dancers’ collective profile dips and rolls, befitting Tangaro’s chant about an epic ocean journey.


“So, how do you feel when you dance in this pa‘u?” Tangaro queries when they’re done. He launches into a round of inquiry with an intensity that would make Socrates smile. He asks them to consider that the intricate wraps that have bound their bodies today are also bound by traditions dating back centuries. “Under what conditions would you alter the wraps?” he queries.


A meditative silence descends until Pua Muraki speaks up. “Too much kapu and you strangle yourself,” she says, prompting Tangaro to mention the famous fault line between hula preservationists and innovators. To no one’s surprise—given his iconoclastic tendencies—he adds that although preservation is important, beware it doesn’t kill the process. “Be flexible,” he urges. In the next beat he assumes the other side: “If hula is the manifestation of the collective mind, what right have you as one person to change it? Haven’t you been taught not to break the tradition?”


Ryan McCormick takes the bait and offers a complicated statement about art as reflection of soul and soul as a force that is always changing in relationship to environment. So, he concludes, change for the sake of harmony with our surroundings is inevitable.


The kumu is pleased. “There are no wrong answers,” he concludes. “But go home and think about it some more.”


Still, the students linger. As we sit in a circle for a final reflection, they talk of how the world’s only degree program in hula manages to draw them together long after they received their final transcript.


Lehua struggles for a moment to explain how the AAS degree attracted her after more than a decade of absence from hula. She is, after all, much older than others in the group, she says, alluding to the conventional view that the aging body has its limitations in hula as in other arts. She credits Tangaro’s expansive views for motivating her to rewrite her script for middle age and putting her on a road to horizons she never imagined she would see. Bali, for example. She took a field trip there with Unukupukupu and Tangaro. By day they toured temples and watched the Balinese make offerings of flowers and incense. By night they sat with their kumu drinking tea and, as he’d asked them to, writing in their journals about the connections they were feeling. She found herself drawn to the daily rituals and communion with nature practiced by the people in the villages they visited. Here was music, dance and art still widely infused into everyday life—so similar to the ‘aiha‘a dances of Tangaro’s classes, even if the culture came from an Asian and not a Polynesian root. Feeling such kinship across great geographic distance, she says, was the gift of her hula degree. “It really is a feeling of love,” she shrugs to a round of knowing smiles and nods from her classmates.


Sitting there I feel the love, though hours later as I head to the Hilo airport, I feel the pain. It is in my right knee. In the seeming centuries that I have taken dance classes, I’ve been cautioned by instructors of all kinds to align myself more symmetrically. I always have an excuse: a slight scoliosis from birth. In the coming weeks I continue to dance in classes of all kinds— African, jazz, ballet, albeit hobbled by the injury I figure I must have sustained in Tangaro’s fierce ‘aiha‘a warm-up. One day in class the pain is so bad that it finally sidelines me and I can do nothing but stop. There in that space I hear the beats of the music where my feet have been missing crucial contact with the ground. I push through the painful knee and suddenly I am centered and in sync with the musicians and dancers around me. The deeper I sink, the higher I reach. As Tangaro said, “No jumping, please.” Pele tells us to surrender the body and when we listen, we arise pain-free.