Celebrating the Aloha Spirit in the Flathead

By Beacon Staff

It was chilly and raining last Wednesday evening, but that didn’t stop the tropical aloha spirit from flowing in Kalispell’s Dance Arts Center.

Seven girls, ages 9 through 11, gathered to practice the traditional and ancient dance of hula. And if hula conjures Hollywood images of coconut bras and grass skirts, you’re barking up the wrong palm tree.

That’s what Sharon Pillsbury’s students at Kalispell’s Halau Ka Waikahe Lani Malie (Hula School of the Peaceful, Heavenly, Flowing Waters) will tell you. After each practice, these energetic dancers lamented the stereotypical portrayal of the dance as two bumps of the hip to the left complemented by wavy arms.

Not only is the footwork of real hula more complicated and the arm work more important, understanding dance commands in Hawaiian language takes time and skill.

The girls make up just one of Pillsbury’s classes that will participate in the school’s 17th Annual Hula Show on June 12 at 3 p.m. at Glacier High School.

An annual show is a tradition for any hula school, Pillsbury said, because it showcases what the students learned – not only in dance steps but in spiritual growth.

The Kalispell hula school’s sister school from California will also perform. The California branch is where the Kalispell school’s head teacher, called a “kumu,” works.

Rose Madison, center, practices a dance in unison with her classmates during a hula dance class in Kalispell.

While a hula school may seem out of place in Northwest Montana on its face, Pillsbury said it fits in perfectly with the basic tenets most Montanans hold closest to their hearts, which she calls a “commonality in spirit.”

“It is a native dance that’s connected to the beauty and grandeur of where you live,” Pillsbury said.

There are eight basic steps in hula for the hips and legs, but the arms and hands do most of the storytelling. The dancers, including Pillsbury’s youngest class, learn to speak some of the ancient Hawaiian language as well as the mythology behind the moves they are performing.

Many dances tell the stories of past Hawaiians, including King David Kalakaua, who is credited with reinforcing hula in the Hawaiian culture in the late 1800s.

Pillsbury has been practicing hula in the Flathead Valley for 14 years. She teaches under the guidance of Kumu Juni Kalahikiola Romu of the California school. The schools offer cultural interchanges with each other and visit Hawaii together, Pillsbury said.

The hula school operates on the premise of connecting with the land, environment, community and family, Pillsbury said. She teaches another class for women, which has 11 members.

There are currently no men or boys in the hula classes, but they are certainly welcome to join, Pillsbury said. Boys and girls dance together until they are teenagers, then they split off. Male hula dances are typically more aggressive, Pillsbury said.

Last Wednesday’s class began with a traditional chant, followed by a warm-up accompanied by rhythmic beats as Pillsbury drummed on a gourd. Once the dancers were warm, they began practice.

Grace Cady, center, warms up with her classmates during a hula dance class in Kalispell.

Each dance is set to Hawaiian music, which rarely uses English in the lyrics. The sequences of moves can be quite complicated and can even involve percussive instruments made of bamboo called “puʻili.”

Learning about a different language is part of what drew 9-year-old Alison Bramlet to the Kalispell hula school. Already studying Norwegian and French, Bramlet has been in hula class for two to three years now after a family vacation to Hawaii sparked her interest.

“I really like learning languages and this is like a body language,” Bramlet said after last week’s rehearsal.

The June 12 performance will be Bramlet’s third. The girls have been practicing all year for this show, Pillsbury said, so they have had plenty of time to get keyed up for it.

The show will be split into two parts to showcase the ancient forms of hula and the modern dances. The four-person band Kekaniwai from Sacramento, Calif., will accompany the contemporary part of the show.

All of the dancers will perform during a song dedicated to family, Pillsbury said, which represents the accessible core of hula.

“It’s a dance for life,” Pillsbury said. “You can do it forever.”

The 17th Annual Hula takes place on Saturday, June 12 at 3 p.m. at Glacier High School Performance Hall. Tickets are available at all Montana Coffee Trader locations, or visit the school’s website: www.hulamontana.com, or call 755-4434.

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