It is 9pm on Sunday night. I am in the Hau’oli Hula Studio watching five women in green matching calf-length skirts rehearse for a concert in two days time. In the center of the floor, facing a wall of mirrors, Chi-chan dances the 3-minute song by herself, as the others watch intently. She is tall and graceful, her arms undulating with her hips, her eyes are concentrating but her mouth is smiling.
To my untrained eye, it looks perfect. “She’s very good,” I whisper to my guide. “She is our youngest member,” my guide whispers to me. “She’s only been dancing for a year.” Obviously, I missed the subtleties.
Over the next few hours, they would do it again and again, sometimes in pairs, sometimes all together. In between, the leader, Tama-chan would talk about the meaning of the story. This song, “Lawakuaby” or “Backbone” is a song of appreciation of an older sister. Like many Hawaiian songs, it is filled with images of nature: Where are you dear friend? A charming verdant mountain You have a beauty that inspired In the multitudes of forest “It is like a speech contest,” Tama explains. “Without heart and feeling, you lose. It is less about technique than feeling.” They have been rehearsing this dance for three weeks. On Tuesday, nine members will perform “Lawakuaby” at a concert where dancers from seven other studios will dance their dances. The main attraction is Robert Cazimero, a famous Hawaiian singer/piano player, who is coming to town and will take over the second act of the program. I look over the score, a series of 40 boxes with circles and squiggly lines that represent the foot and hand movements, cued to the words. “Hula is like sign language,” Saori tells me. “Every gesture has a meaning. You can say almost anything.” On Tuesday, I arrive at the Nishi Kumin Bunka Center and follow the mostly middle-aged women up the stairs to the entrance of the main hall. I am one of the few men there. There is a spirit of community, as most of the audience is there to support their friends or studio-mates. The promoter from Tokyo comes out wearing a subdued Hawaiian shirt and explains how fortunate we are to have Robert with us tonight. Then the show starts. One by one, groups of 6, 9, 11, 16 walk onto the stage in silence and darkness and take their places. Without exception, each group was flawless in their execution, like synchronized swimmers or a ballet corps with feeling. Everything seemed perfect—tilting of the head, movement of the arms, undulating of the hips, pasted smiles. This was no bon dance. The costumes range from subdued black/gray, or dark purple with green stripes, to blood red, bright orange or blue gingham. Only one group wore their hair loose and flowing; the others were pulled back and tied in buns in the back. Flowers tucked in the buns are complementary and leis ran the range from thigh-length to choker. Scanning the faces with binoculars, most appeared in their 60s or so. Makeup was heavy, especially around the eyes, and bright red lipstick set off the sets of teeth that are obligatory to show during the dance. In the lobby during intermission, there are racks of skirts, dresses, bags and leis; and tables with t-shirts, tiara clips and Robert’s poster and dvds for sale. There is another poster that sums it up, “Hula is Life!” The vendors are doing a brisk trade. The dancers have changed and take seats in the hall. Robert enters the hushed auditorium from a side door, crooning a Hawaiian melody that apparently everybody knows. He makes his way up to the stage, his voice soaring into falsetto trills. He is a likeable man in his 60s. Sitting at the piano, bantering with the audience, he could be a Hawaiian Liberace. His set showcases other dancers, including the Hau’oli Studio’s main teacher, two men from Robert’s male Hula school in Hawaii, and two other women brought in from Tokyo. “They’re not so good,” Saori critiqued. I’m back at the studio a week later, to talk to the dancers. A group of five are practicing a dance with two bamboo sticks, arms extended, tapping them in front or on their shoulders in steady 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 rhythm, while they twist and turn, their faces often in a different direction from their bodies. This is the kala class for “young ladies.” Others drift in after work waiting for their locomaikai class for “gracious ladies.” There are classes for older women in their 40s and 50s and one class for 60s and 70s, plus classes for kids and junior and senior high school students. By day, Chi-chan (27) works in a Docomo Shop. She has always liked dancing and came to hula through hip-hop because she wanted something softer. For her, it started as a hobby but became a way for her to improve herself. “I always want to be positive,” she says. “I try to think more about nature and that makes me more positive.” Tama-chan (36) is the instructor for this class. Although there are five teachers who teach out of the studio, Tama-chan seems to be the lead teacher. She has been doing hula for ten years. Like Chi-chan, she always liked dancing, but when she was taken by a friend to a hula studio, she realized that she wanted to dance seriously and this was the way. She has been to Hawaii three times, first with her mother and last in 2011 as a competition winner. She teaches twice a week at Hau’oli but also travels to Fukuoka, Oita, Okayama and Osaka to teach. Other members teach in local kominkan. When dancing, she wants people to feel something for themselves. “Impression is more important than technique,” she says. For her, hula is part of her life, “like sleeping, eating, washing. It is not only dancing but a lifestyle, a way of looking at the world. When I go outside, I feel the wind and rain in everyday life.” My friend Saori (40ish) also has been studying hula for almost ten years. Like most Japanese young women, she thought that hula was for old people, like Bon dancing. But when she saw a Japanese hula teacher, she realized that there could be a real Hawaiian feeling and appearance. She comes to the studio once a week, sometimes more often if there is a performance to prepare for. Outside of the studio, she walks with her hula posture, but “hula movements are not real,” so she doesn’t undulate her arms or walk on her toes. And dancing has made her less shy. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, I’m too shy.’ when your have to make presentation. When you have to dance on stage or even in the studio, people are watching.” Also, hula is a group dance and she has learned the importance of teamwork. About the two Tokyo dancers at the performance, she critiqued, “Their style was not the same. I couldn’t get a feeling. It was just movement, like a doll, there was no expression on their faces. The class is over. They probably danced the stick dance a dozen times, together, in groups of two or three, sometimes solo, with Tama-chan constantly talking, encouraging, advising, showing. To my untrained eye, it all looked good. But, as I have learned in my short time in the hula world, it is not just about technique, but the feeling they give and the impression we have within ourselves watching. Seemingly simple at first sight, hula is the way into a deep world of self-expression and communication. I have noticed that seemingly ordinary OLs and salarimen have other lives. They may look normal by day, but after hours they enter into their subcultures. In the west we might call them hobbies, but here there are serious, taking a lot of time and money and last for years. They are flamenco dancers, wheelchair racers, cosplayers. Carp fans, ping pong players and winter swimmers. I wanted to scratch that surface and see what was underneath. This is the first of a series of occasional pieces on Hiroshima’s Tribes. The Tribes Scribe