In San Francisco, kumu hula Patrick Makuakane has stirred up controversy through his halau with a progressive approach to hula, adding non-traditional movements.
hula’s wide appeal
Old Hollywood movies featured hula as exaggerated hip-swaying girls in grass skirts, coconut bras, colorful and plastic leis. But after years of stereotypes, the hula is experiencing a rebirth that authentically celebrates the Hawaiian culture. And Hawaiians -- wherever they live from New York to Texas to California -- are challenging misconceptions of the evocative dance.
In the documentary "American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawaii" airing on PBS Hawaii's P.O.V. series at 10 p.m. tomorrow, filmmakers Lisette Marie Flanary and Evann Siebens show that more than simply a dance, hula is a way of life for Hawaiians, even those far from home.
"It's frustrating to constantly be confronted with the popular stereotypes perpetuated in mainstream American culture," Flanary said in telephone interview from California. "When you say the word 'Hawaii,' it conjures images of a tropical paradise. But if you say 'hula,' people think of beautiful girls with flower lei and coconut bras and grass skirts.
"American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawaii"
P.O.V. episode airs at 10 p.m. tomorrow on PBS Hawaii
"I cannot tell you how many times I've told someone that I dance hula and they start flapping their hands and gyrating their hips all over the place."
Flanary has long wanted to make a film about dance. When she realized the resurgence in hula and met Siebens, with her experience in making dance films, their ideas meshed.
"I really wanted to bash the stereotypes and show a wide audience that hula is much more than they thought," Flanary said. "I wanted it to reflect the depth and beauty of Hawaiian culture."
Using a cinema verité style of documentary allowed the Hawaiian community featured to tell their stories in their own words.
"American Aloha" had its Hawaii premiere in June at the Maui Film Festival, and the documentary will screen at the Hawaii International Film Festival in Honolulu this fall.
Flanary, who spent many summers here while growing up with her Japanese mother, started dancing hula during the making of the film, which began in 1998.
"I realized that you don't need to be in Hawaii to dance the hula," Flanary said. "Culture isn't where you are, but who you are. The hula opened a door to my own cultural identity and allowed me to reconnect with my heritage in a way that I had never explored before."
WITH HAWAII'S HIGH cost of living, large numbers of Hawaiians left the islands in the past decade in search of a more affordable lifestyle. The most concentrated population is in California and Flanary says, "The hula has traveled with them."
Lisette Marie Flanary, right, and Evann Siebens, searched for evidence of the hula and aloha beyond our shores.
"American Aloha" takes viewers on a tour through the practices and philosophies of some of those at the forefront of hula's renaissance. The film focuses on three kumu hula in California:
>> Sissy Kaio lives in Carson, a working-class suburb of L.A. where she's been teaching hula for more than two decades. She is the most traditional of the three. Her halau includes more than 100 men, women and children from 4 years old to 75. "We make wherever we live our own Hawaii," she says.
>> Mark Ho'omalu, an Oakland resident, is a hula teacher both acclaimed and criticized for bringing innovations to hula traditions.
Ho'omalu's cutting-edge chant style and unique rhythms have challenged traditionalists in Hawaii to question the boundaries of the dance. In 2002 two of his songs, "Hawaiian Rollercoaster" and "He Mele No Lilo," were featured on the film and soundtrack for the Disney movie "Lilo and Stitch."
"Here in California, it's not the blood quantum that will be passed on," says Mark in the film, "but the culture that will be carried into the future."
>> Patrick Makuakane, in San Francisco, has stirred even more controversy in the Hawaiian community. In addition to teaching hula, Makuakane is a DJ who has set traditional hula movement to non-Hawaiian music.
In shows such as "The Natives Are Restless," he uses his progressive approach to address political issues such as the arrival of Christian missionaries and the overthrow of Hawaii's last sovereign ruler, Queen Lili'uokalani, by American businessmen.
"I do everything with hula," he says in the film. "And you know, hula in Hawaii is sort of the last bastion of tradition. You don't touch hula."
IT TOOK FIVE years and constant searching for funding -- the film cost about $300,000 -- to complete the documentary. "American Aloha" is Flanary's first documentary.
"There was a big learning curve in our journey," she said. "Finding funding was a huge challenge; I've got a filing cabinet of grant rejections."
By the numbers
Here is the population of Hawaiians in the United States mainland by states with the largest concentrations.
FROM THE NATIVE HAWAIIAN DATA BOOK, OFFICE OF HAWAIIAN AFFAIRS, 2002
New York, 3,758
Flanary chose 'olelo no'eau or Hawaiian poetic sayings and proverbs that she thought best represented each kumu to introduce them in the film.
"For myself, I chose 'Pau pele, pau mano,' which translates as 'If I fail, may I be devoured by fire or eaten by a shark,'" she said. "I had it engraved on one of my bracelets to remind me that no matter what challenges we faced, there was no giving up."
When she needed special inspiration, Flanary called the kumus.
"It also helped that I had hula class twice a week to lift my spirits and all of my hula sistahs really rallied behind me in support," she said.
The film shows the challenges of trying to maintain one's culture when living far from home. It's a strong testament to the growing sense of empowerment felt by the Hawaiian community on the mainland.
Flanary hopes "American Aloha" sparks dialogue about the Hawaiian migration and a deeper understanding of Hawaiian culture as it lives and evolves away from the islands.
"Cultural authenticity is a debate facing many cultures today," she said. "This film will hopefully inspire a sense of pride for numerous communities that are trying to perpetuate their traditions far from home."
Today's hula revival is "a creative response" to the challenges of cultural survival, Flanary says.
"American Aloha" is a powerful testament to the vibrant community of Hawaiians living far from home, an entertaining celebration of Hawaiian culture as well as a proud tribute to those who will carry traditions into the future.
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