Mainland students search for true meaning of hula
Clad in coconut bras and skimpy cellophane skirts, young women gyrate to a "hootchie-kootchie" hapa-haole hula on a Mainland stage before an admiring audience.
Sexual exploitation or cultural expression? Armed with a $5,000 Mellon grant, two young women from a small California women's liberal arts college with a curriculum heavy on feminism came to Hawai'i in search of the answer.
Shawna Behm and Kristen Hunt, juniors at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., harbored little knowledge of the Islands, save for the Hollywood cellophane skirts image of the 20s and 30s.
A childhood class in hula songs like "Hukilau," with the so-called "poi balls" gave Behm the impression that hula was not serious stuff, but something "fanciful, fun and frivolous."
But a college class last term in comparative dance, "Music of the Spirits," awakened in Behm and Hunt a different appreciation of hula. They found a common denominator in the three genres of music studied: Native American, black Gospel, and Hawaiian hula. With each, said Behm, came the realization the music was an expression, rooted in ancient religion, of a people's deep love for their culture. Often they were people disenfranch-ised from their land and facing threats to their culture.
Could the whackiness of hapa-haole hula have compromised their identity further? And how had it exploited women?
They set out to Hawai'i to find out. The answer would not be what they expected.
They called 20 to 30 kumu hula to arrange interviews. Some were prominent names such as Ainsley Halemanu, Kealoha Kalama and James Dela Cruz. Others were from the backyard/garage hula schools genre.
Once here, they immersed themselves in the dance, visiting local halau, Bishop Museum, even Prince Lot Hula Festival, talking to students, kumu and audience alike. Hula, they were told over and over, is a connection to a way of life, a culture and values (system).
One comforting discovery, they said, was the prominent part women played in the preservation of hula: That during the suppression of things Hawaiian after the missionary period foremost among them hula and 'olelo, the language it was the women who preserved the art form.
"Hula might very well owe its existence to the women," said Behm. "I didn't realize 'the aunties' had kept hula alive and that gave (the pursuit) integrity," and perhaps, permanence, said Behm.
As for the feminist aspects, Behm and Hunt wanted to see if hula had changed for women. They learned instead that hula always has been empowering for women in spite of that period when hula was "Hollywood exploitive," said Behm. On the Hollywood stage, "hula was often portrayed as exploitive. In the home or halau, it was uplifting."
The two have only one remaining hope for the project: that a halau might be started on their campus.