Daily Bruin columnist Christi Carras’ limited dance background consists of bingeing episodes of “So You Think You Can Dance,” grapevining her way through high school show choir and stumbling through rehearsals at a daycare-like dance studio until the age of 8. As a personal experiment, she attended workshops and lessons for 10 campus dance groups fall quarter and documented her experience as a nondancer for Dance Break.
I consider myself an above-average hula hooper. In fifth grade, my tiny hips actually rotated me to first place in our physical education class hula-hoop tournament.
But hula hooping and hula dancing are very different.
Hui O ‘Imiloa’s hula lesson Nov. 14 put my hips to the hardest test they’ve endured probably since I became a gym class hula-hoop champion a decade ago. Needless to say, I was a little rusty, but rediscovering how to manipulate my hips in a way that made me feel beautiful proved empowering. Learning about the cultural origins of hula made the lesson academically rewarding as well.
I’m embarrassed to admit that my knowledge – if you can even call it that – of Hawaiian culture is fairly limited. Luckily, one of the instructors for the lesson, Megan Elliott, took the time to explain some of the cultural background of hula as an art form. Elliott, a fourth-year international development studies student, explained the two types of hula dance: kahiko and ‘auana.
The kahiko style is an ancient form of hula usually performed to the beat of a gourd drum and a chant, often telling stories of love, gods and goddesses, Elliott said. The ‘auana style is more modern and is usually danced to the tune of a guitar or ukulele.
“Sweet Lady of Waiahole,” the ‘auana we learned during the lesson, tells the narrative of a woman growing up on a cattle farm and the sights she sees, such as cattle, rain and flowers. The story of the Waiahole is in line with the theme of several ‘auanas, which tend to center on nature, as nature is important in Hawaiian culture, Elliott said.
The story of the Waiahole is communicated both through symbolic movements and the lyrics of the accompanying music. Pinching our hands open and closed, for example, symbolized flowers, and bringing our arms in toward us while wiggling our fingers represented rain.
However, not every movement represented a natural element or idea, as the names of fundamental hula steps simply translated to how the movements are physically carried out, Elliot said.
The kāholo, a base step we repeated several times throughout the routine, involves a step-together-step-touch while swaying the hips from side to side. I found the kāholo relatively manageable, though my waist didn’t sway nearly as fluidly as the instructors’.
Other steps, however, did not come as naturally. One movement I struggled with in particular was the uwehe, which involved rising to my toes and popping my knees while continuing to circle my hips. No matter how many times I tried, I somehow always over- or under-extended my knees.
I didn’t think to ask why hulas are danced in skirts, but while attempting moves like the uwehe, I was grateful for the fabric one of the instructors tied around my waist that masked the gangly mechanics of my awkwardly structured legs.
In addition to covering most of my gawky lower body, the colorful skirts made the already graceful dance mesmerizingly beautiful. My borrowed skirt was plain black, but others in the room sported adventurous patterns and colors, including turquoise, orange and pink.
By the end of the lesson, I marveled at myself and at the other elegant women reflected back at me in the mirror as our hips traced the music in unison.
I wish I had mastered the hula dance at 11 years old instead of the hula hoop because the ‘auana taught me more than Hawaiian dance terminology – it was a lesson in feeling beautiful that all women could stand to learn from a young age.