“Late!” Uncle Wayne says and rolls his eyes. The halau is already lined up–skirts, or pa`u’s on, hands on hips, knees bent—and a few heads turn around to look at me before quickly looking forward. Delicately sliding my slippers off at the door, I step into the brightness of the glowing room that faces the mountains, where the sun is slowly hiding behind. I pull my pa`u on over jean shorts, wrapping the top elastic band of scrunched fabric onto the correct place on my hips—not too high, and not too low, letting the rest of the material parachute and sway around my thighs, stopping just below my knees.
I make my way into the third row, beside other beginners and several three-year-old girls, their tiny Hawaiian-print skirts restlessly swinging in different directions. I fit my feet to a position inside of a square tile on the cold white floor, and bend my knees slightly, resting my hands on my hips, palms open along the creases of the top of my skirt. I’m standing tall, alert, waiting for the sound of the ipu, a percussion instrument made of wood with a hollow bottom and a curved open top for gripping.
It’s always basics first, and kahiko, or traditional hula, movements are practiced in the beginning of every class. Before we learn a new song, or practice what we know, we spend a long time practicing motions in rhythm with the thumping pounds of the ipu being tapped by Uncle Wayne’s hands, and then down unto the fabric he lays on the ground in front of him. The different paces we keep are according to which way his fingers and palm hit the different places along the bottom of the ipu.
Our feet instantly start moving with the announcement “kaholo”, in which we take four steps to the right, and four steps to the left, hands and fingers sitting flat, and pointing in the direction we’re going. Watching the older girls in front of me, I make sure I look just like them, and concentrate on coordinating my hands and feet to move correctly, and in sync with one another. Uncle Wayne watches each of us moving from side to side and comments on things we should correct while he is sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of us, directly in front of the open door, the Ko’olau mountain range our audience. The room is filled with focus as I also pay attention to my limbs, lifting them up and attempting to move them at the right time. Once in a while I miss the change and my arms are pointing in the opposite direction of my steps for two beats before I quickly turn them the other way, hoping he didn’t notice, not wanting to be singled out.
“Follow the person in front of you”, he says. Bump, bada-bump, bada-bump, bump-bump. Bump, bada-bump, bada-bump, bump bump.
“Keep your arms up—no slouching!” Bump, bada-bump, bada-bump, bump bump.
We are finally all in sync, and used to the pattern, but before we get too comfortable, Uncle Wayne declares the next motion to be practiced, “Ami!” After finishing the four-step kaholo, we jump right into that motion, a circling pattern of our hips where shoulders are to sit still, and heels stay on the floor, hands on our hips and knees still bent, always.
Uncle Wayne gets off the floor, ipu still thumping against his other palm, he walks over to several girls in my row, then to me. Letting the ipu fall he tells us to keep going, regardless of the lack of a beat, and the pace continues. It isn’t until he puts a hand on my shoulder and presses down a little that I notice my whole body is doing the `ami, not just my hips. I can feel my face warming to a piglet-pink as I concentrate on keeping my shoulders in place.
“You not bending your knees das why” he says. Bending them more, I keep trying to sustain the new-found stillness in my shoulders.
“Dea you go!” As he walks away I think I am doing it right, at least I feel like I am until he returns to the front of the classroom and glancing my way he simply says, “Remember to bend your knees; keep watching the person in front of you.”
The `ami I make to the left is always more difficult than `ami-ing to the right. My shoulders start a brand new kind of bob, one shoulder rising higher than the other with every circle, and I begin a new kind of concentration—trying to defy my body’s natural counter-clockwise tendencies. Feeling my shoulders bounce I look in the line and front of me and see nothing but straight shoulders and smooth hip circles.
Along with the `ami being practiced, we then do the hela, or simple sway from left to right of the hips, (another move where I desperately try to refrain from the shoulder-bop), then the kawelu, where we turn our bodies in one direction stepping with one foot back and forth before turning to the other side, then the `uehe, where we step one foot wider than the original placing, opening our knees for a second, pushing our skirts outward. We practice these and several more, moving onto the next one when we have done them well-enough, never being able to guess when Uncle Wayne will decide it’s time to move on. In between practicing different motions we always go back to the kaholo, before the next one is announced.
All of a sudden Uncle Wayne declares “break” after a set of kaholo’s and my thighs are jello. Other girls, and a few boys have tiny droplets of sweat on their foreheads and they’re reaching into backpacks along the wall to take out candy, taking off their skirts and placing them somewhere in the room, scattering in and out, playing chase-masters, and my favorite: Chinese-jump rope.
I’m getting used to this game now, but I only can do the first several levels, before in unison the girls announce “ope-you touched!” because the rope grazes my skin and I’m out of the game, inviting the next girl to challenge my defeater. The long stretchy rainbow-colored rope that was around the wrist of one girl all through-out the first half of practice is now wrapped around two girls ankles and moves up with each level, getting more and more difficult to jump in, out, and over of without it grazing your skin. The rest of us closely watch the legs of the player, ready to yell his/her loss into the early-evening air. Sitting on the benches and walls outside the classroom we reach our hands into open plastic packages filled with lihing-mui seeds, lihing-mui covered gummy bears, the lihing-mui powder itself, lihing-mui covered gummy worms, lihing-mui strawberry belts, lihing-mui covered dried mangoes, and the lihing-mui covered edibles options go on. I am still getting used to this taste that squeezes my cheeks together and wakes my tongue up—but pretend to absolutely love them blinking away any signs of dissatisfaction.
Everyone is sassy, cracking jokes and laughing at one another constantly. I’m observing for the most part, and laughing with them on cue. Sometimes when I chime in the response is a pause, and then uproar of laughter, which I also join in on, not wanting to seem like I’m offended. But it wasn’t long before I also found my differences to be funny, before my mouth watered for lihing-mui as we got closer and closer to break-times, and before I got better at Chinese jump—(nevermind, that one didn’t happen) and it wasn’t long before fifteen minutes was up, and Uncle Wayne called us back into the room.
Practicing simple moves using just the feet, or just the hands is over, and now it is time to use both, and tell the stories we learned through them. Back in line–pa`u’s on, hands and feet in place—we can tell what is coming next by what Uncle Wayne is doing. If he starts telling a story we might learn a new dance and, verse by verse, we will go over it—motion by motion, putting the dance together piece by piece before doing the entire thing through. If we’re practicing a song we should know, he will announce the song and start playing once we’re all ready. Uncle Wayne is our mirror as he sings the song. If he takes out his ukulele, we know its auana; if he takes out the ipu we know we’re doing a kahiko song.
Compared to modern hula, or auana, kahiko hula is bold, straighter, less romantic but more on-fire, and declarative. Each song, auana and kahiko alike, tells a story. Kahiko, which means “ancient style” are of songs that tell stories of ancient warriors or of tragic love revolving around a god or goddess’ jealousy or anguish, or of the conquering kings and the places in which they fought. It feels like passion and strength, like the after-math lingering goose bump seconds following a conch shell blow. Auana, which means “to wander, or drift” is accompanied with an ukulele, and feels like a mothers smile, and smells like a ginger lei laying cool around your neck and chest. Hands bring aloha from the inside and spill it onto the luau tables, or into the eyes of proud families, friends, and strangers watching. Auana tends to speak of something as simple as a bird, or something as exciting as driving around the island with loved ones. And Uncle Wayne is always sure to tell us every detail of every verse, every character of every king or queen, god or goddess, the intricate descriptions of places, flowers, animals and periods of time. Later I learned that not every kupuna, or teacher goes into so much detail as Uncle Wayne always did with us. Stories were told with our facial expressions, how hard we stepped a heel down on the ground, or how slowly we turned our heads from one direction to the next.
Today he has his ipu on the side of him, and is sitting on a fold-out chair with his ukulele in his arms; his left hand’s finger’s is over the strings, his right arm cradling the other end, thumbs tuning for the sound he needs for the song we’re doing next, which he announces, “holoholo ka`a.” We position ourselves for auana, right leg forward, hands on our sides, then when he sees we’re ready he starts strumming and we simultaneously move to the right in kaholo, fingers waving this time unlike the kahiko style we were practicing earlier, where our hands stay flat.
After doing a kaholo to the quick strummed melody Uncle Wayne plays, we announce as a halau, or group of dancers the first word of the first verse, which is “kaua.” This verse talks about two people heading out in their car, going nowhere in particular, just on a joy-ride. It’s exciting and we first point to the audience with one foot stepping out in front, then point to ourselves with our thumb, bringing our foot back in place saying “you, and I”, then turn side-to-side with wheel motions meaning “Let’s go!” I always remember the first verse then have to make sure I’m watching the other girls carefully so that I’m not caught in the opposite direction or turning into anyone as the song progresses, making the “joy-ride” even more exciting for me in my crazy car. Each verse is done two times, so if I mess up the first time I usually come back around the second time.
As we kaholo after the first verse, I know the second verse is coming up, and I don’t remember what that word is so I just keep quiet and hear, “`Alawa.” I recognize this one—the wind! I love doing this motion that shows how the wind is blowing hard, as we’re travelling down narrow winding roads. Since I enjoy it so much, I exaggerate my motions, making it seem as if the car is in a hurricane about to topple off a cliff.
At this point in the song, all my favorite motions are covered, except for the one at the end where we get to pretend the car breaks down, and we are hitch-hiking—something a little extra Uncle Wayne threw in for fun. So I again listen for the cue announcing the next verse, ready for anything, and then I hear “Ho mana.” This verse explains that the car is old, and has problems, but we feel so blissful driving, that nothing even matters. I’m recovering from fumbles, comfortable back into the kaholo then “`O ka pa” declares the next verse and I instantly remember that this is where we clap once softly, and show the moon shining in the sky.
It is now the end of the day and of our long joy-ride, and we’re close to the bright moon in the sky, so we look up and reach our hands into the sky, palms face outward, thumb-tips and pointer-finger’s touching, leaving a circle shape in-between and over us, showing the moon is above us. It is time to go back home.
The last verse, the same as every last verse in hula, is declared by the word “Ha’ina,” which doesn’t have a literal English meaning, but is something like “let the story be told” or “tell the refrain.” The last verse we just enjoy the ride home, and we sing and smell the smell of gasoline fumes. Then, in our halau’s version, our car breaks down and we shoo our hands outward toward the car broken down on the street, now having to hitch-hike for a ride home, which is why we’re all giggling as we end the song.
With each song we practice I go into a different world, nothing specific coming to mind at all—just entranced into the song itself, body and mind engrained into each moment. Today I couldn’t tell you the exact order of motions for every song I learned over the course of eight years, or the lyrics for all the stories told, but when I listen to a familiar melody I feel as if I am in the tiny room of Satellite city hall, in the little town of Hau`ula, and something inside my gut moves in the directions it is supposed to. My chin wants to lift with the singing of the word “mahina” so I can look at the moon; my hands want to form shapes of budding petals with the word “pua,” and an ukulele playing; I get an alert sense inside of me when an ipu is heard beating nearby; and my mind drifts around anything sacred, or belonging to the earth when I hear a chant.
After that frenzy wind riding song we do at least several more songs, stopping now and then to re-learn a section, or a movement, or even for Uncle Wayne to describe something, or emphasize what the story is about. Some motions are harder for me than others to remember. And at certain points my feet move correctly while my arms just swing into general directions they should go. Then at times my arms and hands are telling the story they should be, while my feet scramble and I scurry this way and that, trying to watch the girls and keep up with everything. One day I’ll keep up, and one day an older woman at a first baby luau will exclaim at the ending of a song “Ho, dat haole girl can dance!” and I’ll smile from ear-to-ear all night, and all the next day.
It’s dark, and my body is moving like it’s my first day all over again when practice is finally finished, pau. Everyone says “thank-you!” and bye to one another, and I’m hopping on my bicycle to pedal home, pa`u over my handlebars, a humming in my head, and long blonde hair trailing behind me in a ponytail.