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.”
Before giving me a tour of their respective studios, which are separated by a short corridor, a few comfy chairs and two distinctly different teaching styles, they trace their roots to what they call the Golden Age of Hawai‘i, a time when iconic tunes like “My Little Grass Shack” and “Sweet Leilani” reached more than 750 radio stations worldwide via the program Hawaii Calls. “We danced to beautiful music,” Leilani says. “Today the music is much more aggressive, but back in our day we danced to music about a different kind of Hawai‘i, a beloved Hawai‘i.” The sisters insist that things really were different back then. “During our time you were chosen to dance the hula,” explains Puanani. “You didn’t pay for lessons like students do today.”
The sisters first learned kahiko, or ancient hula, from long-respected kumu hula Tutu Hina Hina and Uncle Maui. Later, when Puanani was 7 and Leilani was 12, they were asked to dance with kumu Emma Kahelelani Bishop and also with Katie Nakaula, who had been a court dancer for King David Kalakaua. By the mid-1930s, Leilani and Puanani had become celebrated dancers and soloists at places like the Hawaiian Town, a top-notch Honolulu nightclub that was host to Hawai‘i’s first female bandleader, Marie Mitchell.
“You had to be 16 to dance there,” recalls Puanani. “So when the people came to check my age, I used my sister’s name. She was 17. I was only 11.”
It wasn’t the first time Puanani had broken the rules. According to Leilani, her sister had a few run-ins with the nuns at Saint Theresa School, too. “They used to spank her for dancing behind school buildings and for teaching the hula to other students,” says Leilani—though years later those same nuns hired Puanani to come back and dance at a school lu‘au.
Puanani continued to teach hula to her fellow students when she went on to McKinley High School; there the younger Alama sister taught Eleanor Luna, whose daughter Debi Chun followed in her mother’s footsteps—literally—and studied with Puanani, too. “Every Saturday,” Chun remembers, “my mother would walk me and my sister up a ton of stairs to Puanani’s studio on King Street, which was across from Longs Drugs. Puanani had a lot of students, and if you didn’t do things exactly the way she wanted you to, you couldn’t move on. She was very strict.” She was also, Chun remembers, “born to teach the hula,” and when it came time for Chun’s own daughter to learn, she knew just where to send her. “Puanani taught my mother, me, my sister, my daughter and my sister’s daughters,” she says of their family’s hula education. She also remembers performing as part of Puanani’s halau at Kapi‘olani Park for the annual Na Hula o Hawai‘i Festival, the longest-running annual non-competitive hula gathering in the Islands—a gathering the Alama sisters have been a part of since 1940.
“The Alama sisters do it because of dedication and commitment,” says the founder of the Hula Preservation Society, Maile Loo-Ching. “Our culture wouldn’t exist as it is today if it weren’t for tradition and if it weren’t for people like the Alama sisters. They’re dedicated to perpetuating hula, and they embody tradition in everything they do.” Last October the Alama sisters were nominated for the “I Ola Mau Ka Hula” award by the Hula Preservation Society, and for the first time in the history of the award, says Loo-Ching, the honorees focused entirely on giving back to their guests, sending them home with personalized mementos which were followed by thank-you notes, all to make sure that the guests knew how much the sisters appreciated them. “Communities are built and stay strong because of the connections between people,” Loo-Ching says. “The aunties have enriched the community of Hawai‘i, whether you were one of their students or not.”
Which brings up the question, Just how many students have Leilani and Puanani taught over the years? “Thousands,” they tell me, repeating the word as if they can hardly believe it themselves. In among the students have been members of their own family, like Puanani’s daughter, Puanani “Baby Pua” Jung, a successful engineer who opened a hula studio in Laguna Hills. Other hula protégés in the family include the sisters’ niece, TeMoana Makolo, who studied primarily under Leilani and, from 1962 to 1966, worked as a dancer and choreographer at the famed Hawaiian Room in New York City’s Hotel Lexington. Today Makolo stays close to her aunties and helps them run errands from time to time; it was she who drove them to their studios this morning.
In Leilani’s studio Makolo shows me a picture of Shirley Yamaguchi, the Japanese actress who starred in the 1952 drama Japanese War Bride. “Auntie Leilani taught her the hula, too,” she says, explaining the differences between her aunties’ teaching methods: “Auntie Leilani is a little more relaxed than Auntie Puanani. She is more concerned with keeping things fluid and in sync rather than focusing on technique like my Auntie Pua does.”
She points to a black-and-white portrait of the late Uncle George Na‘ope, a celebrated kumu hula who in the picture has a wide smile and an ‘ukulele in his hands. “They were like brother and sister,” Makolo says of Na‘ope and Puanani, adding that it was Na‘ope who founded the Merrie Monarch Festival in 1964 and that Puanani is the only surviving judge from the original festival.
We are in Leilani’s studio when Puanani asks whether I would like to watch them dance. Makolo digs through a mountain of CDs until she finds Natalie Ai Kamau‘u’s version of “Ke Aloha.” She puts it on the stereo, and Puanani begins. She is dancing in front of a wall of tall mirrors adorned with dried lei and vintage advertisements of hula dancers and big steamships, and as she moves she transforms herself into a younger image of herself hanging in her studio: of a girl with long black hair who “didn’t like to be told what to do.”
Captivated, I watch her hips form the words of the song. After a few minutes Leilani joins her, and slowly Puanani rotates to a position farther in the back. They move elegantly and expertly, every movement graceful and accomplished. I watch their hands. “See, like this,” Puanani says. “The middle finger pulls the other fingers down toward the thumb like this, in a circle. My sister and I do this, and our students do this … so when our students dance they look like us.” Small wonder that in the ’50s Puanani graced the cover of the album Lovely Hula Hands. She asks whether I am ready for a hula lesson, and I accept.
As I dance, I am surrounded by seven decades of images of students performing in pageants, hula competitions and festivals. “I teach my students to be serious about the hula,” Puanani says as she corrects the position of my arms and neck. Leilani stands at her sister’s side, playing a three-chord tune on her well-worn ‘ukulele. She sways comfortably, repeats the words, “again, again,” and I can tell she is having fun. I am having fun. But Puanani is a taskmaster. She is adamant that my arms must stay perfectly even with my chest, my neck straight, the position of my foot exactly forty-five degrees from the floor and my middle fingers falling slowly toward my thumbs at exactly the right time. “Hula comes to those who earn it,” she says.
After we dance, we return to Puanani’s studio, and the sisters continue to reflect on the past. “We were taught that our parents were the trunk of the tree and we were the branches,” Puanani says. “Now we are the trunk of the tree, and our children and students are the branches.
“The hula has changed,” she says, “and I’ve seen it change for the better. Now, my people may not all agree with me. You see, in our time everybody learned the same thing over and over. And nowadays our children are improvising the hula. But they aren’t hurting the hula. They are exploring.”
We gaze at pictures of her grandchildren hanging on the wall. She tells me she’s long considered retiring. “I told her she can’t,” says Leilani. “I am going to dance until I go to heaven, and she is going to dance until she goes to heaven.”
Puanani smiles, shrugs her shoulders and says, “OK.”