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The heart of Hawaii beats in Ashland

“Hula is the language of the heart, and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.”

— King David Kalakaua, last King of Hawaii

Hula instructors Andrea Luchese and Leilani Kahananui teach in Ashland but have strong ties to Hawaii. Their conversations are peppered with Hawaiian words and references to support, family, lineage, the land, protocol, rigor, respect, honor and commitment.

All of these things intersect in the dedication expected of kumu hula, the hula masters who teach in what Hawaiians refer to as a halau.

Luchese doesn’t believe a physical space is necessary to the functioning of a hula halau. which means “hall” or “meeting place.”

“A halau is a school that perpetuates the traditions, the teachings, the protocols of the lineage of the kumu,” she says. “The kumu hula is the primary means through which the teaching and the protocols of a lineage are perpetuated.”

“It’s a school of hula with people who really want to learn the culture,” Kahananui adds. “It’s a way of life. It’s a commitment to not only yourself and your teacher, but to other students who want to learn and grow together. As time goes on, the students bond, and it becomes a family.”

Family, or “ohana,” is integral to Hawaiian culture. But it means more than an extended family connected through bloodlines. It’s the growing together and bonding that Kahananui describes.

“There’s a sense of holding, of nurturing, of caring for and guiding, that goes with the role of kumu,” Luchese says. Students in a halau refer to each other as hula sisters or hula brothers rather than classmates.

“Lineage is very important, because who you are is a question of who you come from,” Luchese says.

This idea is expressed in the Hawaiian concern with honoring the source, and Luchese and Kahananui are keen to acknowledge their hula lineages.

“I started my in-depth training with Raylene Ha‘alele‘a Kawaiae‘a, a kumu from Hawaii Island who, in essence, took me under her wing,” Luchese says.

Although she considers Kawaiae‘a her “root kumu,” she continued studies with Sybil Ku‘uipo Pruett and Keala Ching, earning kumu status in what she describes as the spiritual elements from Pruett and the more practical elements from Ching.

“We had a rigorous training program that included traditional ceremonies that marked particular junctures in our progression to becoming kumu hula,” Luchese adds.

‘Uniki, or graduation rites, were held as students progressed through such ranks as dancers and chanters, until earning the title of kumu.

Kahananui, who grew up in Utah, learned hula informally when she was a child.

“My dad would teach me in the living room, because once people found out he was Hawaiian they asked him to entertain,” she says. “I don’t think he was really trained in hula. He just knew a little bit from his sisters and his mom and from his years growing up in Hawaii and seeing it.”

Kahananui’s attraction to hula became stronger when she turned 18.

“When I moved to Hawaii, I felt like I belonged,” she says. “I actually felt I had a connection. From the moment my feet touched the ground, the moment my nose inhaled the thick, fragrant air, I felt so much peace, and so much like I was home.”

Kahananui and Luchese include a strong Ashland connection in their hula journeys through Malia Nelson. Originally from Hawaii, Nelson taught hula in Ashland in the early 2000s, at which time Kahananui and Luchese lived in Ashland.

According to Luchese, Nelson had not gone through the rigorous training and advancement rituals associated with the ancient style of hula. She was, therefore, not a kumu, and taught primarily hula ‘auana, or modern-style hula.

When Nelson moved back to Hawaii, the hula journeys of Luchese and Kahananui intensified, each taking slightly different directions and strongly embracing hula kahiko, or ancient-style hula.

Although Luchese had previously taught hula, she did not create her own halau, Ka Pi‘o O Ke Nuenue, until 2007, and began to perpetuate her kumus’ lineages and to establish her own.

Kahananui studied with kumu hula Pekelo Day and his Eugene halau, Hula O Na Pua O Hawaii Nei. Through arduous training in that lineage, she underwent traditional rituals and was recognized with kumu status in June of this year. She, together with Akiko Colton, another kumu from Day’s halau, now teach in an Ashland branch of the Eugene group.

Luchese is not Hawaiian, and Kahananui is only part Hawaiian — her father is Hawaiian, and her mother Euro-American. Neither speak Hawaiian.

“Right now I’m learning it through some online apps and classes,” Kahananui says. “The language I know is basically through the song and dance. My father never learned his native tongue because he wasn’t allowed to.”

With the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893, the Hawaiian language was banned. Not until the cultural renaissance of the 1970s was it strongly revived.

Luchese, too, has learned the language as part of her hula training.

“I’ve become familiar with the language through all of the songs,” she says.

If there were no songs, or chants, there would be no hula. The role of movement in hula is to illustrate or allude to the text. Older texts, and those composed today in the old style, are entirely in Hawaiian. Students must learn the meaning of the texts, often researching the language and context on their own. Kumu, who frequently compose chants or songs themselves and choreograph their texts, as well as those composed by others, must understand the highly poetic language in order to choreograph appropriately.

It’s not just language that must be understood in order to dance properly. With no written language until the coming of the missionaries in the early 19th century, chants, and hence dance, were lessons in history and culture. Subject matter dealt with people, romantic relationships of the monarchy, big events and the land. As an island chain, land and the physical environment were especially important. People needed to understand the seasons and the rains, of which there are many kinds, in order to obtain food and harvest crops.

It’s some of the cultural elements that create the greatest challenges for Kahananui and Luchese in their teaching. Many of their students have never been to the islands and have nothing to connect them to the fragrances of the islands’ flowers, the differences between the strong winds that sail down the mountains and the soft winds that accompany a gentle summer rain.

“If you’re dancing a hula that names the wind of North Kohala, I’ve stood in that wind,” Luchese says. “I know what it feels like, what it looks like. There’s no substitute for having actually been there.”

While the hula lineages of Luchese and Kahananui have partial roots in Ashland, they each now belong to a different lineage. But they exemplify a traditional Hawaiian proverb: All knowledge does not rest in one school. They support each other’s work, and sometimes perform in the same programs. They are concerned with respecting and honoring the traditions of their kumu, of hula and of Hawaiian culture.

“When I learn a song or choreograph a dance or dance it, you may not understand the words, but I want you to be able to understand the story I’m telling,” Kahananui says. “I really want to get rid of stereotypes. It’s not all about coconut bras and funky grass skirts. It’s not just a dance. It’s really about trying to connect with yourself, and the land and the culture.”

And as King David Kalakaua said, with “the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.”

Andrea Luchese’s new class sessions begin Jan. 7. Email hulaanuenue@gmail.com for information. For information about ongoing classes with Leilani Kahananui, call her at 541-951-7960, or Doris Dare at 541-499-2510.

Members of kumu hula Andrea Luchese's halau, Ka Pi‘o O Ke Anuenue, perform a hula kahiko, or ancient-style hula. Photo courtesy of Andrea Luchese