Hands, hips, feet all tell the story
By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor
The song says of hula to "keep your eyes on the hands."
The hands, do, indeed "tell the story."
But for those who watch the hula with expertise, it is also the hips, knees and feet. And the eyes. And the face.
As the Islands (and the world) ready for the annual Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition this week, it's a good time to consider what else to watch for.
How do you watch hula?
Haopili Anderson of Honolulu, who has been dancing since she was 5, puts it this way: "You watch for the whole thing. You can be very technical: Are the feet flat? Are the dancers all aligned, if (they're dancing as a) group? But, really, when it comes right down to it, it's did this dancer or this group of dancers communicate something to you at the na'au (gut) level?"
Says Vicky Holt Takamine, University of Hawai'i hula instructor and sometimes Merrie Monarch judge, "I want to see personality in that dance. Where it gets really sticky is how do you incorporate precision and also share the emotion? You can be so precise and yet not move me as an observer."
Precision is, of course, important. Perhaps more in hula than any other Polynesian dance, a high premium is placed on conformity (all the dancers moving together) and on performing the movements correctly. While there are stylistic differences between hula schools — which Merrie Monarch judges take into account — there are rules.
Among these: The upper body is still and controlled. It does not bob up and down. It is the lower body — the feet, knees and hips — that root the dancer to the ground and create a sort of platform for the arms and head and face to communicate the story.
The feet are generally flat (although some schools use a more arched form). The knees are always bent. The weight is transferred from foot to foot and hip to hip to create the sway of the dance.
The arms are at shoulder height, neither drooping nor stiff; and when the gesture calls for it, they reach away from the body, toward the audience, making a connection.
The eyes always follow the hands, directing the watchers toward the picture the dancer is creating.
Takamine and her fellow judges at Merrie Monarch want to see everyone in a group dance performing in unison.
"I'm not judging from the (hula tradition) line that I come from. I'm looking to see that everybody is executing the movements the same way, from their line," said Takamine.
Good dancers learn to do this by body memory; they don't have to think about waist to toes, because it's been memorized; then they can place their attention on the telling of the story with their hands and eyes and face.
Dancers, even the most experienced ones, begin every rehearsal with a run-through of the basics; veteran hula dancers have been through literally hundreds of hours of such practice. Takamine said she doesn't even have a set program; she sits with her ipu (gourd drum), tapping on it and calling the steps randomly. The dancers must be able to respond to the kāhea (call) without thought.
In general, men and women, even if they are dancing together, move differently; women's hands are open, men's are closed in fists; men move powerfully and briskly, women move gracefully and seductively; in many hālau (hula schools) women keep their knees together, men open them in moves like the 'uwehe.
"It's the whole body that tells the story," said Takamine. "The hands are the last thing that we fine-tune. We are trained to make it look easy."
Judges of hula competitions are watching for many things, said Takamine. Are the adornments and instruments appropriate to the type and time frame of the chant or song? Is the song being interpreted correctly based on its historical context? Is the language pololei (correct)? Does the dancer seem be aware of all the nuances of the mele (song)?
For anyone who has never studied hula or the Hawaiian language, said dancer Sandy Sato of Kahului, Maui, it is difficult to understand all the meaning contained in a hula. The language is richly layered and referential.
"But, you know, it doesn't matter," Sato said. "If you can just enjoy it and get whatever you can out of it, that's fine. We have been presenting our dance to other cultures for a hundred years."
Said Takamine: "I think it's hard for people to judge when they don't know enough about hula. My advice is enjoy what you see and don't try and pick who's the best."
In the end, watching hula comes down, even for judges and experienced watchers, to something difficult to define: the drama and emotion of the performance.
"There is a mana, a power, that comes from (the hula dancers') understanding and how to relate to the audience. I think that's what we're in touch with. They have this confidence in what they're doing and how they're sharing it."