Teaching hula about more than just dance

Hands-on learning

Posted: Sunday, March 04, 2007


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  Connie Miller, Bettina Lavea and her daughter Lei, McKenna and Courtney Beddow laugh during a break in a recent class. Students spend eight weeks learning dances and Hawaiian culture. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Patti McKenna raises her hands at the conclusion of a hula dance she was teaching to her Soldotna Community Schools class at the Soldotna Sports Center last week. Students in the class have been learning Hawaiian culture along with dance moves.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Meet Patti McKenna, aka Alaka’I Hula.

“This course provides an introduction to hula, the heart and soul of Hawaii expressed in motion. It is the voice of the Hawaiian ancestors. The student learns to appreciate hula, its music, Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian traditions. Hula embraces the physical, mental and emotional aspects of the dancer. Hula is

also a lifelong journey! ... Hula is a summation of precise physical movements ... . Every movement in the hula has a specific meaning and the position of the dancer’s hands has great significance ... . Historically, hula is handed down from the Kumu Hula (hula master) to the haumana (students). I am Alaka’I Hula (hula instructor).”

The above is an excerpt from Patti McKenna’s syllabus for the hula class she teaches at the Soldotna Sports Center for Soldotna Community Schools. Patti is an Alaskan, who moved to Nenana in the winter of 1964. She also has lived in Talkeetna. Recently, she was a resident of Hawaii for seven years.

“When we lived in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island. One of my friends said, ‘Hey Etua Lopez is offering hula lessons down at the Hulihe’e Palace.’ And I said ‘Well, I don’t know.’ So I went with her, just to kind of watch, but that was it, I was hooked,” said McKenna.

“When you talk to people who are in hula, who have danced hula, and who are interested in hula, that’s one of the first things they’ll ask you is ‘Who was your Kumu?’ And ‘Who was your Kumu’s, Kumu?’ It’s almost like your bloodline. ‘Where did you come from?’ So I came from Etua Lopez, who came from Uncle George Na’ope, who is one of the people who was very instrumental in beginning the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, which is like the Superbowl of hula,” she said.


Connie Miller's brightly colored pa'u skirt adds visual warmth to the room during one of the class sessions on a cold February night.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The students in McKenna’s class appreciate her style of teaching, which gives them insight into more than just dance steps.

“I learned more of the language end of it — how to pronounce certain words and the whole alphabet,” said Jamie Riley, who works for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Print Shop.

“I just went in there with an open mind and heart, because hula is just a beautiful piece of dance and storytelling. I just wanted to be more connected with that culture,” said Connie Miller, a mother, grandmother and bilingual programs manager for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

“I hear the music in my head a lot. And that’s the Hawaiian music ... it’s there, it’s a calming force ... what’s happened should go home with you. You carry it with you, it’s a happy thing,” Miller said. “I love Hawaii and I’ve been going there since the ’80s for vacation, and hope to be a snowbird there when I retire.”

What is the Alaska to Hawaii connection? Anecdotally speaking, it seems possible that most people of the Kenai Peninsula, if not the state of Alaska, have spent time in Hawaii. The complementary nature of such a connection is obvious: fly away from the cold, dark winter of Alaska to the warm, colorful sun of Hawaii. But is there something deeper?

“You know, we say ‘The Last Frontier,’ and I really believe it’s the same thing when you go there,” McKenna said. “We’re not connected. ... There they would call it ‘The Mainland’, here we call it ‘The Lower 48.’ We’re different.”


Instructor Patti McKenna, second from left, takes Jamie Rileys hand while coaching her and other students on the gestures of a hula dance.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“I see kamaaina around here. ‘Born of the Land.’ Have you ever heard the word haole? It means ‘without breath.’ In other words, not born of the land. It doesn’t mean, ‘guy with the white skin.’ It means the breath. No breath,” McKenna said.

In Alaska, we have a special name for the outsider, too. A cheechako is a newcomer, or tenderfoot.

In the history of the dances indigenous to Alaska, and the dances indigenous to Hawaii, particularly hula, one might note parallels.

Sasha Lindgren is the cultural and educational director with the Kenaitze Tribe. She was at the Festival of Native Arts with the tribe’s Jabila’ina Dance Group.

“There were many traditions — to tell stories ... also, in winter, for conditioning, which is why the men dance specific dances and the women dance specific dances,” Lindgren said.

McKenna asks, “Have you ever watched the Alaska Native dances? They could tell you a history. I’m sure I do not understand the language. But I am sure from watching that that’s a passing down for those who are open to seeing and hearing, a passing down of those things that are important in their culture.”

Lindgren echoes the observation.

“We didn’t have a written language, so you learned place names. You had to learn a long sequence. In that way, the dance did tell a story ... . That makes good sense because it was the kinetic movement that would trigger the brain,” Lindgren said.

Such long sequences of movements might help a traveler remember the sites of camps along a river. In this way information was passed down. Knowledge of ancestors and their contributions are passed down each year through a Stick Dance held by the Athabascan people of the Interior.


Connie Miller, Bettina Lavea and her daughter Lei, McKenna and Courtney Beddow laugh during a break in a recent class. Students spend eight weeks learning dances and Hawaiian culture.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“In hula, the hands tell you the story. The feet take you where you need to go. Your footwork is the foundation of hula, but your hands tell the story. You show the rain, you show the wind, you show the aloha, the love, whether the song is in English or not,” McKenna said.

One might also notice the same pattern of subversion of Alaskan and Hawaiian dances due to colonization trends.

“We had a lot more knowledge of our dances before contact ... . A lot of the stories that the dances told were lost.” said Lindgren. Contact for Native Alaskan cultures began in the 1700s and continued up through the last century. In many cases, Native Alaskans were forced to give up their own cultural practices for those of the newcomers. Access to many Native Alaskans was made easier by the vast waterways in the state.

“They kept a lot more of the ceremonial dance in the Interior than where we were on the coast,” Lindgren said.

Some cultural traditions survived outside the public eye. According to Lindgren, “That’s how it had to be.”

And so it had to be with hula, as well.

“During the years when there was no hula, because the missionaries didn’t want hula. During those years, there was no way — it was an underground thing. You danced at home, you didn’t dance in public, ever... . The traditional hula is more than just the dance. Traditional hula is the feeling inside ... . It’s the telling of the history,” McKenna said.

For some of McKenna’s students, the cultural connection is more personal. Bettina Kipp, faculty member at Kenai Peninsula College, and her high school-age daughter Lei Lavea, are taking the class together.

“I was interested in learning something new ... my older daughter is of an age where it’s been a real joy to have her join the class. It’s been a fun thing that she and I can do together,” Kipp said.

“I’ve always been interested in dance. When I was a child, I took dance ... . Hula interested me, because I’ve watched a lot of it, because my husband is Hawaiian,” she said.

Kipp’s husband is glad to see these two women enjoying each other and the exploration of Hawaiian culture.

“He thinks it’s great. He’s very happy that I’m doing something for myself. And he’s actually a musician, he played music for hula for many, many years ... it’s kind of a way of connecting with his culture, as well.”

Having entered into the process because of her own interests, Kipp has enjoyed the journey in part because of the approach taken by the Alaka’I Hula McKenna.

“What has surprised me about the class, is that Patti is so the essence of aloha,” Kipp said.


Students join with their teacher for a closing affirmation at the end of a recent class.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“She has a warmth to her that is so lovely, and it illuminates what we’re doing in terms of the meanings of the dance. The dance (Puamana) is about expressing love for one’s home. The chant that we’re doing is about expressing welcome to someone who is being greeted with excitement and gratefulness. Those kinds of qualities, Patti is — in the way she speaks to us, in the way that she greets us, and her kindness and her humor — she really gets across the idea behind the dance,” Kipp said about the pieces the Halau, or hula group, is working on. McKenna describes the story the Pua Mana tells.

“It’s about a plantation on the island of Maui. And it talks about how lovely her home is. Her home is nestled in the coconut trees. During the wind they sway, gently, back and forth. And it’s lovely to be out there to see the flowers, to smell the flowers, to watch the moonrise, over the water, that softly goes ‘Sssshhhh ...’ when the waves come up.”

In the class, the story the women tell with their hands is apparent. The mele — or song — is in Hawaiian, but the swaying motion of the trees comes across. The moonrise is shown as the women graduate the position of their arms from low near their hips, to high above their heads. At the end of the story, the women’s fingers lay gently across their lips as they imitate the sound of the waves.

McKenna says she is a long way a way from being a hula master, or Kumu. “In the total, lifelong experience of hula, if I looked at a tall tree, I’d be not even up to the first branch. It’s a lifetime journey.”


One of the songs students learned is titled Lovely Hula Hands. Its verses speak of, Lovely hula hands, graceful as the birds in motion, gliding like the gulls over the ocean.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

She loves hula, though, and her own Kumu advised her that if there was no Halau in Kenai, she must start one. It took months for her to work out the details, but she is enjoying her Halau, and the opportunity to lead them in their exploration of hula.

“I feel that connection. And I know, they’re connected to me. I know that ... . You care about every single student, and every single thing you’re teaching them,” she said..

Na Pua Nani is the name of the Halau that meets twice a week in one of the conference rooms at the Soldotna Sports Center. McKenna defined the name of the Halau.

“The word ‘Na’ means, this is the plural of the word that follows ... ‘Pua’ it’s flower ... ‘Nani,’ it’s lovely, or beautiful.”

The Lovely Flowers.

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