I fell in love with Hawaiian culture from a young age. Growing up, Disney’s Lilo & Stitch was one of my favourite films. I listened to the song ‘He Mele No Lilo’ all the time and tried to dance Hula, just like Lilo does in the opening scene. The curiosity did not leave me. In 2017, I came across London School of Hula and Ori’ (LSHO), and my old love for Hawaii was rekindled. The LSHO community welcomed me with an open heart and I have been dancing with them ever since.
Polynesia consists of over 1,000 islands across the central and southern Pacific Ocean.
In general, dance is used in Polynesia to tell stories through movement, which tend to convey a deeper meaning. At LSHO we learn two types of Polynesian dance: Hula 'Auana (from Hawaii) and 'Ori Tahiti (from Tahiti). Hula tends to use more arm movements for symbolism, whereas Ori’ focuses more on hip movements to represent the daily life of the Tahitian people. Although we only learn dance from Hawaii and Tahiti, other Polynesian islands, such as Samoa and Fiji, have their own dances.
The beauty of Polynesian nature is often reflected in dance
The majority of Polynesia is composed of volcanic islands, which have a rich biodiversity, with waterfalls and rushing streams. If you have ever seen Disney’s Moana (yes, I am obsessed with Disney), I can assure you that Polynesian nature is just as beautiful as the island of Te Fiti - if not more.
The beauty of Polynesian nature is often reflected through dance. For example, many dances tell the story of the Hawaiian myth about Pele, the goddess of fire, and Namakaokaha’i, the goddess of the oceans.
One of my favourite Hula dances, ‘Maunaleo’, expresses devotion to a loved one through references to the natural world. The mele (meaning ‘song’) was written by Keali’i Reichel for his mother, who he compares to the mountain, Maunaleo. The mountain guards, comforts, and loves the people of Hawaii.
Throughout this dance we use hand motions to represent different words of nature. For example, we gesture to the mountain itself, the rain and the land. The motions can also signify an emotion, such as love, which we show when we cross our arms over our chest as if we were hugging something close to our heart.
When I perform ‘Maunaleo’ outside barefoot on the grass, I truly feel Mother Nature. As a city girl, I sometimes struggle to connect with my soul and the natural world, but Polynesian dance has brought me closer to both myself and the world around me.
Barefoot on the grass, I truly feel Mother Nature
Before we learn a new dance, we always take a moment to connect with ourselves and nature. I like to picture myself on a beach with a gentle breeze and the sweet scent of hibiscus flowers. It immediately calms me down and offers a safe space to express my emotions through dance.
Each time I dance, the beach becomes clearer to the extent that it almost feels real. It’s now my happy place that I can return to whenever I dance, bringing much comfort and peace into my life. My mental health has been better than ever since engaging in these practices.
The dance also brings me closer to other people in my ‘ohana. ‘Ohana refers to the idea of a larger family that is not necessarily related by blood. It can mean your best friends, neighbours or, in LSHO’s case, dance sisters. In Hawaiian culture, ‘ohana is special and important. It represents love, support and loyalty to each other. If you are part of someone’s ‘ohana, consider it a great honour.
The dance also brings me closer to other people
It is certainly an honour to be part of the LSHO ‘ohana. From making traditional dance costumes together to winning Ori’ competitions, the LSHO has become an unbreakable bond of sisterhood between women from all over the world. Even lockdown can’t stop us from dancing together; we have danced together over Zoom.
However, Polynesian culture is not without its share of challenges. The formerly repressed Polynesians have had to fight for their right to express their culture through dance. By the early 20th century, most of Polynesia was occupied by colonists, who disregarded Polynesian dance as offensive and provocative. In Tahiti, British colonists banned Ori’ and it was not legalised again until the 1950s, when a movement began to revive Tahitian culture.
Polynesia was occupied by colonists, who disregarded Polynesian dance as offensive and provocative
Today, Polynesian dance is celebrated by those from all over the world, including my sisters and I in the UK. I recently attended an online dance class with a Tahitian dance teacher, who shared her knowledge of the culture and Ori’ dance. She explained how the people of Tahiti were oppressed for many years, prevented from dancing but also subject to violence and stripped of their rights. It is truly wonderful to see a proud Tahitian be able to share her once-oppressed culture with people from all over the world.
Personally, I am grateful to have the gift of dancing Hula and Ori’, and I believe that I have a responsibility to continue sharing the beauty that is Polynesian culture. The general ethos of LSHO and other Polynesian dance schools is that we must educate ourselves on the culture before we dance. From making our own traditional costumes to chanting the Hula mele (meaning ‘song’), we are not only dancing Hula and Ori’, but also preserving and appreciating Polynesian culture.
By Louder Than The Storm contributor Isabella Lock.