Seniors bring Hawaii to Alaska

Posted: Thursday, December 18, 2003

Judging by the students in Bunny Chong's class, hula isn't just for young Hawaiian women in grass skirts and coconut shell bikini tops.

The students in the hula class Chong teaches at the Soldotna Senior Citizens Center range in age from early 60s to late 70s, show up for class dressed in sweats, and, perhaps most surprisingly, are both male and female although only two men are currently in the class of about a dozen.

In Chong's class, hula isn't so much about hip gyration as it is about graceful hand motion.

Chong learned her style of hula at Na Manu Olu Halau or The Graceful Birds School in Honolulu, where, for 10 years, she taught kids ages 8 to 12 how to hula, and even directed them in free performances at the Hilton's Hawaiian Village.

"Hula is a dance that tells a story," Chong reminded her students at a recent Wednesday night class.

The story is told through fluid, graceful hand and arm movements, a sort of sign language in cursive.

"We try to blend each motion into the next," Chong told her class as they practiced "Lovely Hula Hands," a popular hula sung mostly in English, spiced up with refrains in Hawaiian.

Chong likes to teach the song to novice dancers because its lyrics and choreography illustrate how to hula. She also thinks that if her class understands the lyrics, they'll catch on quicker.

"If you know the words, the motions come more easily," she said.

Chong rewound the tape in her boom box and played "Lovely Hula Hands" from the top.

The class undulated their "lovely hula hands" and arms at shoulder height, from left to right, in waves "gliding like gulls over the ocean," then raised their hands above their heads and wiggled their fingers as they slowly lowered their arms to mimic "rains in the valley," before circling their arms wide above their heads to represent "swirling winds over the pali."

Practicing the song half a dozen times gave the seniors quite a work out.

"You wouldn't think that'd be good exercise, but by golly it is," said Judy Warren, one of only four seniors to make it to class due to icy road conditions.

Chong champions hula as a great way to work out.

"If guys think football is harder than hula, they better guess again," she said.

Speaking for the guys in the class, Jim Fisher agreed.

"I'm surprised at how much demand it puts on your arms," he said.

The demand has been even greater the last few weeks. The class has been working overtime to prepare for several upcoming performances.

Along with "Lovely Hula Hands," the class is scheduled to perform a hula version of "Silent Night" or "Po La i E," in Hawaiian at noon Wednesday at the Soldotna center.

The class also is planning to perform in January for Heritage Place in Soldotna and Forget-Me-Not Activity Center in Kenai, but no dates have been set.

Seniors wishing to join the class should contact the Soldotna Senior Citizens Center at 262-2322.

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