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Tropical beat, northern feet

Hula troupe celebrates 10 years with luau, dances

Posted: June 14, 2012 - 9:26pm  |  Updated: June 14, 2012 - 9:29pm
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Brian Smith
Petra Murray, 15, practices “I’iwi A’o Hilo” with Emma Murray, 15, left and Lillygean Murray, 17, right on Wednesday at the Soldotna Seniors Center. The girls, along with Lawrie Murray, not pictured, make up the Pua Mae Ole hula dancing group. Above:

A tropical Hawaiian breeze blew through cold, rainy Soldotna on Wednesday as the Na Manu Olu and Pua Mae Ole dancers took to song and dance.

The seven members of the Na Manu Olu, which means “The Graceful Birds” in Hawaiian, and the five members of the Pua Mae Ole — “Never Fading Flower” practiced the dozen-plus songs they will perform at 6 p.m., Saturday at the Soldotna Seniors Center as part of their annual luau. 

The performance marks the 10th anniversary of the organization of the Na Manu Olu, which is comprised of seniors ages 66 to 77 and the fifth anniversary of the Pua Mae Ole dancers, ages 15-20.

“The young and the old,” said hula dancer Magga Laber.

“The young and the seasoned — don’t call them old,” said dancer Jan Fena in response.

The group’s Saturday performance will be a tribute to King David Kalakaua who brought hula back to the Hawaiian people after Queen Elizabeth Ka’ahumanu banned it after she converted to Christianity in 1830.

Fena said the group got started a few years after the Soldotna Seniors Center decided to host an annual luau. About that time Bunny Chong, now the groups’ director, moved to Alaska from Hawaii.

Chong, a professional hula dancer and instructor, said she missed teaching the pastime, so she asked the group if they would like to learn.

“Our other hula troupe cancelled and I called Bunny and said, ‘We have no entertainment,’” Fena said after the group’s Wednesday dress rehearsal. “She said, ‘I’ll be right over.’”

The two learned hula and started the group with 14 members, some of whom have since had to retire due to aches and pains. The group now performs several times in the summer at the Soldotna Seniors Center and other senior centers and functions, and on the Fourth of July and Christmas, among others.

Fena said the group is fortunate to have Chong as an instructor.

“She makes us feel good about what we do,” Hope Haselow said after the group’s dress rehearsal.

One of the group’s favorite part about dancing the hula is dressing in their custom made clothes shipped straight from Hawaii. The group agreed dancing the hula had other added physical benefits.

“We have to learn the words to the song and then what motions go with the words and then how Bunny wants us to move our feet,” dancer Estelle Parks said. “It is good exercise and good for your memory.”

Judy Warren agreed adding it’s good exercise “enough to where you go home sometimes and you have to take a pain pill.”

Fena said the group, which also includes Geoann Reichert and Glenda Graham, embraced the Pua Mae Ole dancers when they decided to team up. 

“They started performing with us and it just made the luau that much better with them,” Fena said.

And how do they feel about dancing alongside the seniors?

“That’s the best part,” said Lillygean Murray, 17.

The younger dancers agreed they all liked several aspects of hula dancing.

“In other dances you don’t really tell a story with your body,” Petra Murray, 15, said. “It is just the song telling the story, but with hula you tell the story through your hand motions.”

They agreed the hardest part of the dance is moving their hips and making sure everyone moves together.

“When I dance it feels more personal — you’re looking at the people and you’re telling them, reaching out to them and telling them a story,” Lawrie Murray said. “It makes them feel like we care, which we do. It is really fun dancing here.”

At one point in the rehearsal, Chong scolded the group, which also includes Emma Murray, 15 and Hydra Murray.

“Everyone who is not smiling — I want $5,” she said jokingly.

The girls admitted it’s hard to smile throughout all 50 minutes of the performance and sometimes their faces will start to twitch.

“When my face starts twitching I just look at someone who has a funny look on their face,” Petra said. “Some of the seniors’ husbands make faces at me when I look at them so I just look at them.”

Chong said she gets a lot out of teaching the group how to dance.

“That’s my joy,” she said. “It is a blessing. I don’t get paid — I get smiles and I get hugs.”

She said she also enjoys sharing her Hawaiian culture with those who attend the luau.

“That’s my payment,” she said. “... I want to share Hawaii with whoever comes.”

Tickets for the luau are $22 for adults, $11 for children under 11 years old. Doors open at 5 p.m., dinner is served at 5:30 p.m.

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.

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