Halau Ke‘alaokamaile: 70 weeks and counting
KAPALUA — Just what does it take to become an accomplished hula dancer?
The answer from those passionate about hula: years of study and practice, knowledge of both the Hawaiian language and the inner meaning of Hawaiian
mele and chants, and most of all, dedication.
To learn the authentic hula of old Hawaii or the modern dances, it has to become an obsession for haumana (students), said Kumu Hula Keali’i Reichel, the demanding teacher of hula.
A year ago In February, Reichel told students in one of the few classes being held in West Maui these days, “This class meets only once a week, but for you it has to become an obsession.”
Some 70 weeks later, the class for both women and men is still going strong.
Accorded the rare privilege of observing some of the first lessons (“Voices of Maui,” April 29, 2010), this columnist returned many lessons later to Honolua Store, where four of his dedicated students — who happened to be having breakfast — commented on their long journey.
Some of them young, some of them older, all noted that they jumped at the chance to join Kumu Hula Reichel, because he would be teaching in a new
halau, one of few in West Maui other than the Napili Kai Foundation for keiki.
Many of the new students had danced hula for years. Only a few were beginners.
Months later, the universal comment was, “We love it, but it takes a lot of work” to learn the authentic hula, absorb the inner meaning of mele and chants, bring their knowledge to another level.
Learning the language in order to interpret the dances properly is tough.
“Keiki absorb the Hawaiian language like a sponge,” a student noted. “When you are older, you are still a sponge, but the water drips out fast.”
Another, a mother, said, “I want to expose my children at a young age.”
The kumu teaches three Saturday classes, including one for keiki and an afternoon modern session that attracts an older crowd.
Over the months, the students fully embraced the kumu’s disciplined approach and found, as they learned, that his 30 years of experience teaching hula was already paying dividends.
Let’s listen, via scribbled notes (no tape recording allowed), as the kumu instructed his dancers on the beginning “grounding position” at one of the first classes.
“Everything starts from here with flat feet,” said Kumu Reichel, pointing to the ground. “Feet flat, toes touching each other, shoulders and body relaxed, arms extended.
“You don’t take big steps. You will lose control of your body if you do. Check the position of your feet. Use your extended arm to bring yourself around. You need to control your body from the tips of your toes. That is the name of the game: control.
“Up and down, up and down. Polish this step all week. After five or six weeks, you will be precise. You must practice this every single day.
“Point your hands with precision. Check the position of your elbows. Bring your hands up to form a flower. When I tell you to freeze, you should have such control over your body that you keep your feet together. I may sound like a broken record, but you have to go all the way down to look nice.“
And so the scribbled notes came to an end. Seventy weeks and counting, and many more to come.
Columnist’s Notebook: This is the fifth and final column appearing on hula over the last 18 months. The fourth one last December explored the world of the legendary Emma Farden Sharpe. The book “Voices of Maui — Natives and Newcomers” is now on sale at the Native Intelligence store on Market Street in Wailuku.