At the back of a building near downtown San Anselmo, the aloha spirit is coming to life. Shawna Alapa’i beats a drum made from a gourd and calls out chants in Hawaiian. Suddenly, the room is awash in movement. Skirts of red, blue, green and yellow swirl around the hips of 20 dancers. Their feet slap the wooden floor in unison. Their hands reach toward the sky.
Welcome to hula in Marin.
There are no palm trees swaying, no volcanoes keeping watch over the Pacific, and yet women—and occasionally some men—from across the county kick off their shoes, wear their colorful tropical prints and dance to the sounds of paradise. For them, hula is a chance to nourish body and soul, regardless of location.
“When I’m dancing, I feel like I’m in a different realm,” says Shirley Ahsing, a Novato resident who was born and raised on Oahu.
Like Ahsing, many who join this Marin halau, or hula school, have some direct or ancestral link to the Hawaiian islands. Yet the dance draws people of all backgrounds, ages, body types and dance experience. Some want to rekindle a connection with their homeland, while others seek understanding of the Hawaiian culture. Still others simply want a new workout. All gain an appreciation of the islands’ spirituality, belief system and connection with the natural world.
“When you learn hula, you don’t just learn a dance step or a movement,” says Alapa’i, founder and executive director of the Halau Hula Na Pua O Ka La’akea (“the Many Flowers of the Sacred Light that Brings Good Things Throughout the Day”). “You’re learning history, protocols, an ancient way of thinking, and how the ancients lived their days.”
Originating with the earliest residents of Hawaii, hula at first was a religious dance, performed to worship the Hawaiian gods. Accompanied by chants and percussion instruments, this traditional style is still practiced today, although dancers also learn modern hula, which incorporates other instruments such as the ukulele and singing, often in English. In all its forms, hula includes graceful movements that are beautiful and expressive. Every hip swivel, every foot stomp, every turn of the palm is deliberate and studied and helps to advance a story being told. Legends, history, values and love are all topics of hula dances. There is a reason dancers refer to this as “the sacred art.”
During one session of an advanced class, Alapa’i leads students through a hula that recounts a legendary tale of a woman whose husband leaves her for a younger woman. Through their movements and facial expressions, the dancers describe how the woman and her son try to return to her native Hawaii by canoe, only to become stranded when the boat overturns. Wracked with hunger, the woman devours berries without first presenting an offering to the gods. She loses her mind as a result, and only regains her sanity after her husband finds her and makes the religious offering.
Even with the story sung and chanted in Hawaiian, the dance radiates an energy understandable in any language. The next hula’s theme is lighter—the celebration of new life—and it clearly comes across through the dancers’ upbeat movements.
Mill Valley resident Stephanie Behasa is among those in Alapa’i’s advanced class. Originally from the islands, Behasa had no interest in hula until about ten years ago, when she decided it would be something fun for her and her goddaughter to do together. Not only did it bring the two closer and strengthen Behasa’s affinity for Hawaii, she says, but it also was “more of a workout than I thought it would be.”
As Alapa’i points out, hula is a physical activity for all generations—there is no age at which a hula dancer must retire. That inclusive approach is one of hula’s big draws for Novato resident Lora Dinga, who began dancing with her now-17-year-old daughter eleven years ago.
“Within four seconds, I was completely and utterly hooked,” says Dinga, who dances with a halau in Berkeley. “It has so many avenues of richness. It’s a workout, [and] it’s [also] a study in culture, exposure to another culture, another language, another way of being, thinking, dressing, living.”
As a tomboy growing up on Oahu, Alapa’i didn’t fully appreciate hula until her family gave her a choice at age eleven—sew or dance hula. She chose hula. From the first lesson she knew she’d made the right decision.
“I found my reason, my purpose,” says Alapa’i, who is part Hawaiian. “I knew how I fit into my life in hula. I was deeply taken by it, on a soul level. I have been dancing and teaching ever since.”
That soul-stirring enchantment is a frequent response among dancers, even those with no prior connection to Hawaii. Marin native Meghan Andrew came to hula after purchasing Hawaiian music CDs during a trip to Kauai. Though never a dancer, she was so taken with the sounds that she looked up hula schools as soon as she returned home. Now living in San Francisco, Andrew continues to drive to San Anselmo to immerse herself in the energy and spirituality of this ancient Hawaiian rite.
“It’s a little bit of Hawaii in the foggy San Francisco Bay Area,” she says.
Interested in hula?
Halau Hula Na Pua O Ka La’akea’s introductory class, “Hula Lite and Easy,” meets every Thursday from 6:15 to 7:15 p.m. The class is open to all men and women ages 12 and up; no experience required.
Where: Knights of Columbus Hall, 167 Tunstead Ave., San Anselmo
Cost: $18 drop-in fee
More information: hulaon.org; [email protected]. A number of halaus elsewhere in the Bay Area also offer lessons. For a list of schools, check pw1.netcom.com/~halkop/halau.html