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Doing the hula with 'Aunty'

[Photo: Mija Riedel]

Over several decades, “Aunty” Ku’ulei Punua has taught the hula to thousands, including, she says, John Wayne and Elvis Presley.

The sinuous moves don't come easily for a dancer trained in ballet, without a Slinky for a spine.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2003

Aunty Ku'ulei answered her phone on the second ring. Her studio was the third of three "hula schools" listed in the Kauai yellow pages, and the other two had turned me down.

Although Kauai runneth over with hula performances, hula videos and hotel hula demonstrations, I could not find a single dance studio where I could "drop in" for one class.

Still, after a half-dozen trips to the island, I wanted to appreciate more than Kauai's guava-scented breezes and plumeria leis. I was seeking the visceral sense of a place that can be learned only through the soles and bones of my feet and the line of my arms.

Ku'ulei Punua did not offer classes, either, but she could fit me in for a private lesson.

"How long is a class?" I asked.

"A long time. We just dance and dance. I love to teach. I taught John Wayne and Elvis Presley."

And so, four days later, I was standing in a rectangular, poolside studio with 15-foot ceilings, a wall covered in mirrors and my arms straight above my head -- the profile of a skyscraper.

"Too stiff," Aunty said, her arms rising above her to resemble the Na Pali cliffs on the island's north shore.

* * *

There are about 36 kinds of hula: hula danced quickly, danced sitting, danced standing, danced for the chiefs, the gods, an audience . . . The old style, hula kahiko, was a form of worship, accompanied by chanting and percussion.

This resonates with my dance training, as Martha Graham, who laid the ground for American modern dance, also considered dance a holy language and preferred percussive accompaniment.

Hula's sacred status included its teachers, who were revered as priests. Students came to Kauai from all over the islands to study dance, poetry, mime and music with a special teacher, or kumu hula, literally, "the source."

The ruins of one of the first Hawaiian hula schools, Ka-ahu-a-Laka, can still be seen just east of the Na Pali cliffs. Some say that graduation from Ka-ahu-a-Laka involved swimming out into the crashing surf past a hungry shark. If you were a good student -- loose in limb, fleet of foot and pure in heart -- you lived to hula another day.

* * *

Thirty miles southeast of Ka-ahu-a-Laka, Ku'ulei Punua teaches hula at her home. "Aunty Ku'ulei," I had been told by other dancers, is probably the island resident who has been doing hula the longest.

A broad hug, a quick "Aloha, call me 'Aunty,' " and we were into the basic four-step: step, together, step, pause -- four to the right, then four left.

The studio walls and long mirrors were the only things connecting Aunty with right angles; everything else was curve, swivel and roll.

"No. No, no, no. Don't jerk," Aunty said. "Smooth."

Her hips gyrated like a Tilt-a-Whirl in honey.

Aunty was having a hard time finding the taped song she wanted, Beautiful Kauai, so she sang herself, a full, round lullaby of a song.

"There's an iiiiisland

"Across the seaaaa . . . "

* * *

Crossing that squally sea in the 19th century were missionaries who proved unappreciative hula fans. Bearing news of heaven's glory, they staggered ashore into fragrant jungles of ginger, banana and plumeria -- competition for heaven.

They found dancers naked from the waist up, dressed in dog-teeth anklets, flower leis and short sarongs made from tree bark. Shortly after the missionaries gained the trust of the islanders, hula dancers began performing in long-sleeved shirts buttoned to the neck.

Sixty years later, the Gilbert Islanders crossed the squally sea bearing with them the grass skirt, and hula was unhooked and unbuttoned again.

* * *

Aunty stood in front of me. In the mirrors, my black T-shirt and shorts framed her green-flowered culottes and polished red nails. She settled my hands firmly on her hips: "Keep your hands here."

My hips were especially pleased with this. There are Hawaiian words distinguishing circular hip motions from swaying hip motions, and Aunty's subtle swivels were more easily discerned by touch than sight.

". . . beauuutifulll Kauai . . ."

* * *

To the right we went -- step, together, step, pause -- and to the left. I'm about 6 inches taller than Aunty Ku'ulei, and my eyes and nose bobbed above the soft black waves of her head, while my hips crashed like whitecaps behind her fluid ebbs and flows.

"Don't cock your hips," Aunty Ku'ulei said, smiling. "Everything is smooth. Don't lift your feet; drag them."

I can change the beat of my heart faster than I can make my feet drag. The theme song of my childhood, as performed daily by my mother to the percussive accompaniment of my tile-slapping ballet slippers, swelled in my ears: "Pick up your feet."

Aunty swayed off in search of her cassette. I faced the mirrors. Step, together, step, pause. My hips looked like a flip book, tiny jerky movements clicking them from point A to point B.

I tried channeling Elvis' pelvis, then John Wayne's, summoning their spirits into Aunty Ku'ulei's mirrors, and because I can't imagine John without a horse, the studio got crowded.

Aunty appeared in the mirror. "Bend your knees. Feet together, hip to the left."

"Not fair," my hips whispered. "Aunty's got a Slinky for a spine."

My vertebrae are the nonaccordion variety, not inclined to swiveling in four dimensions.

"Drag your feet," Aunty said and demonstrated, and I could hear ballet teachers around the world wince.

Movement is a fingerprint: It identifies us. In 1816, one Adelbert de Chamisso, a European naturalist visiting Kauai, compared "the ungraceful contortions that we admire under the name of ballet (with) . . . the magnificence of the local performances." He pronounced European dance "pale in comparison."

In terms of American modern dance, hula is contained. I barely recognized the spaces -- huge as dance halls -- between Aunty's vertebrae and inside her hip joints. Hula's grand waltzes are performed with muscles I know only by name.

Back with the latest cassette candidate for Beautiful Kauai, Aunty handed me a plastic cup of cool water. While she searched the tape, I gave the studio a quick 360. On the bit of wall that wasn't glass or mirror, there were three photos of Aunty Ku'ulei: one black and white print of her with Marilyn Monroe, and two larger color images of her dancing outdoors.

"That's when I was in New Zealand," she said.

* * *

Forget walking a mile in someone else's shoes. If you really want to understand them, try following on a dance floor. Dr. George Graham made an impression on his daughter, Martha, each time he confirmed that the movements of his patients told him much about their condition. "Movement," Dr. Graham often told the young dancer, "never lies."

* * *

"Again," Aunty said as she swiveled before me.

All hulas tell a story. By choosing a song with English rather than Hawaiian lyrics, Aunty gave me a fighting chance. When we sang "sea," our hands did a slow barrel spin in front of our bellies. At "the falllllls of Wai-lu-a," her hands rippled like waves over thousands of tiny, wet Niihau shells.

"Keep your fingers together," Aunty coached. My fingers wiggled, invoking water, beckoning rain. But they seemed to conjure the memory of a spider and a waterspout, nothing like Wailua.

Aunty passed me a glass of guava juice and dropped another cassette into the tape player: a news report flooded the studio, fell into static. Finally, a deep male voice swelled out of the speakers:

"Beau-ti-ful Ka-ua-iiii . . ."

An hour passed, and suddenly my kumu hula announced, "That's enough for today. I could dance and dance, but you should rest."

Although I had barely covered any space as I understand it, a thin line of moisture was trickling from the base of my throat down the center of my chest. I drained the glass of icy juice and imagined John Wayne standing before those mirrors, wiping guava droplets from his lips, while Elvis and John's horse stepped to the right, together, step, pause.

At the door, Aunty handed me the long-sought cassette and the lyrics to Beautiful Kauai written in fluid, evenly spaced blue letters. Her hug was quick and close.

Her glance intimated, "The wise know when to drag their feet and when to lift them," and she left me with a warm parting word: "Practice."

As I drove north, past guava trees and rolling surf, I imagined Dr. Graham in the seat next to me. Having just observed my class, he might have said that a little hula lesson in fluidity is just the thing for bodies raised on the ceaseless stop-and-go of rock 'n' roll.

And he might have loved dance for one of the reasons I do: When your feet learn new steps, your heart learns new steps, too.

* * *

The sun was just setting as I reached Ke'e beach, below the ruins of Ka-ahu-a-Laka. I dived into the clear water, a wide ribbon of reef separating me from the sharks and the crashing surf. My legs kicked, my arms stretched overhead, and water streamed through my fingers.

Memories are stored in our bodies, in our knees and shoulders, hands and feet. They insert themselves unexpectedly into our daily routines, with each chance slap of a slipper or swivel of a hip.

Immersed in the buoyant blue-green, I rolled slowly with the current, surfaced and floated, facing the sky. The rising, falling sea conferred its fluid rhythms through my hips and outstretched fingers. Step, together, step, pause.

Amid the ebb and flow, I heard Aunty sing, "There's an iiisland . . . "

-- Mija Riedel is a freelance writer who practices hula in San Francisco.

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