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Protecting cultural tradition translates into
big business.
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     “When I first started teaching, there were hula studios, but only about two people were teaching kahiko (ancient hula),” said Sissy Kaio, a kumu hula, or hula instructor, who now teaches 130 to 140 students ranging in age from 4 to 75. “Now there are a lot of hula schools, and a rise in students. The interest has grown.”

     These days there is even an organization for hula instructors, the Kumu Hula Association, with Northern and Southern California chapters so kumus like Kaio can meet and plan cultural awareness events, showcases of their students and competitions like E Hula Mau.

Maintaining close ties to homelands

     Much of the drive is about protecting culture. Since dance is such an important element to many island cultures—especially because many stories were told through chants and songs sung in their native languages before writing was adopted—many islanders brought this tradition to the mainland and continue performing the dances because they are a part of their heritage, and the dances are one way to maintain close ties to the islands.
           
     “We make wherever we live our own Hawaii,” said Kaio, who lives and runs Hula Halau ‘O Lilinoe, in Carson, Calif. So, we may be in California, but we make it our Hawaii.”
Victor Pang, a native Hawaiian living in Huntington Beach, Calif., and member of the Pacific Islander Community Council, said mainlander interest in the dance and culture stems from the attitudes of islanders. “Pacific Islanders are friendly,” he said. “They embrace you and, in turn, people embrace their friendliness.”

     Halualani, the San Jose State University professor, added, “[Non-islanders] love the dance, songs, music, symbols and imagery in Hawaiian culture—the more touristy aspects of the culture.  There is an exotic fascination with anything Polynesian that I think has created this real interest.

     “The biggest motivation to keep it alive is that mainland Hawaiian generations [and other islanders] have a vested interest in enculturation, and nourishing and feeding their kids, grandkids and great grandkids. ‘I want [the kids] to dance,’ a lot of people say,” said Halualani. “That’s a huge motivation that has become very clear.”

Performing for Home Depot

     Protecting cultural customs, however, has translated into mainstream appeal and commercial success.  In trying to meet the growing demands for performance requests from people beyond the Polynesian community, cultural dance groups like Hula Halau ‘O Lilinoe have started maintaining an entertainment branch that caters specifically to calls for dancers at luaus, parties or other Polynesian-themed events—like the 2002 movie premier of “Lilo & Stitch,” Disney’s animated film set in Hawaii.  For this event, a few of the dancers from Hula Halau ‘O Lilinoe performed at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood to help bring some live island flavor to the venue, and subsequent to the film’s release, the group began receiving more requests to dance at children’s parties.

     “This has a lot to do with exposure,” said Kaio. “Kids began wanting to learn to dance hula [after they saw “Lilo & Stitch”].”

 

 

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