Q and A


Nurturing a living culture

A talk with hula master (and wearable art lover) Vicky Holt Takamine

Victoria Holt Takamine is a kumu hula, a cultural activist and a teacher and has an impeccable pedigree to back up all these titles. Born of an alii family whose kuleana was in Moanalua, she graduated as a hula teacher under the legendary Auntie Maiki Aiu Lake and taught hundreds of students in her own halau (Pua Alii ‘Ilima) and at the University of Hawaii. This month, she’s overseeing the seventh annual MaMo (Maoli Arts Month) celebration.

COURTESY VICKY HOLT TAKAMINE

You are, like so many of us, many things: kumu hula, choreographer, Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition judge, businesswoman, activist. But when you think of yourself–setting aside the personal — how do your define yourself?

As a kumu hula, primarily. I see myself as a native Hawaiian wanting to make a better place for the people who live here. (For this reason, she doesn’t, she said, teach elsewhere; she thinks it’s important to teach her people first. She did, however, just leave 13 of her students in Japan to launch a Polynesian show in a seaside resort.)

How do you know when something is right, when it is, indeed, your kuleana?

You just know. In 1997 when the bill (State SB8 and HB1920, which would have required Hawaiians to register to practice their traditional, cultural and subsistence practices on undeveloped land) came across my desk, I just said, “I need to do something.” So we organized a demonstration at the legislature and when I looked out at the people, I just grabbed the mic and began chanting and all the chanters began to join in and the dancers stood up and the drummers went to their pahu. I looked at those people and I said, “This is my nation.” We chanted and drummed around the clock for two days and every time the drums started, it poured rain, big drops. . . . We knew they were the tears of our kupuna.

(This was the first coming together in modern history of kumu hula and cultural practitioners across genealogical, historical and stylistic lines; there were hundreds, a till-then quiet and hidden force. They formed The ‘Ilioulaokalani Coalition, which continues to advocate for raising cultural and political awareness among Hawaiians.)

Years later, I remembered something, a phone conversation with my kumu (Lake) when I was in my early 40s. She told me I would be doing the most important work of my life in my 50s. I turned 50 in 1997.

What is the Pa’i Foundation and why did you found it?

We felt the need to educate the general community about Na Mea Hawaii, things Hawaiian, our principle values, our cultural practices. We realized we were fighting a losing battle. The people who were the decision-makers did not have our ancestral knowledge or ancestral ties. . . . To alienate us from natural resources is literally to kill us. Pai (located in a storefront in Kalihi) was not organized to serve the needs of the halau, though we do practice here. It was really to serve the needs of the broader Hawaiian community.

(Today, this includes providing educational and meeting space for displays of Hawaiian artworks, demonstrations and classes and even long distance-learning, in which Takamine serves as an educator for La Mama Theatre in New York City. It is also the center for the annual MaMo Maoli Arts Month, which includes recognition of Hawaiian artists and artisans, arts markets, the May 17 wearable art show, now in its sixth year, art exhibits around the Islands and even, in true contemporary style, a MaMo Eats the Street event May 25.)

How did wearable fashion become part of the mix?

Every year we honor native Hawaiian artists (this year, it was the filmmaker Puhipau at a mini-film festival May 3-5). The second year after we started MaMo, I thought, you know what we don’t have? Art is not just what you frame and put on a wall. For us, we wear our art, it’s in our clothing (kapa and adornments), it’s on our skin (kakau, tattoo), it’s in our papale (lauhala and other woven hats), it’s in our lei. So we invited some of the artists to create things to wear, to transfer their medium, whatever it might be, to something to wear. We get fashion designers–Manuhealii, Nakeu, Kealapiko–people that that’s their forte. But we sprinkle that with artists who may be painters, jewelry makers, feather weavers. . . . It’s been really popular, and after, we have an auction and sell off the clothes–the ones the models haven’t already bought and refuse to take off!

This brings us to a frequent question. At Merrie Monarch just last month, you had Snowbird Bento with nose flutes and oeoe (a rare type of whistle). Then you had Mark Kealii Hoomalu in wraparound sunglasses chanting an ‘oli kahiko that sounded like rap. Where is the line for you in how a living culture evolves artistically?

I think you need to know what you’re talking about. So if we are talking about ancient-style hula, then there’s critieria and you have to follow them. If you’re talking about hula ‘auna, which is more modern, you have more leeway. We don’t have to stay in one place. But we have to know what we’re doing and we have to respect. (She talks of a recent UH dance recital, in which elements of traditional practices blended with modern motifs.) It was interpretive dance with some Hawaiian movements and references. But it’s not hula. I told them, “We’re not calling it hula.”

Do you remember the first time you really inhabited a hula, not just danced it but lived it through your body?

(No hesitation. A gentle nod.) It was at Halekulani, I was dancing with the Kahoano Lake Trio in one of Auntie Maiki’s Thursday night performances. I had a white holoku and we were doing “Dancing Under the Stars” and . . . it was fabulous. I was just in the moment, the music was great, the stars were actually out. And afterward, Auntie Maiki came up to me and said, “That’s the best I’ve ever seen you dance. You danced that exactly how I would want this performed.” That particular song, that particular moment. It’s one of my fondest memories.

MaMo Wearable Art Show, 05/17, 6pm; silent auction, 7pm show, Hawai’i Theatre; trunk show with pupu and no-host drinks to follow at Indigo. Tickets: 528-0506.

More on MaMo events: [paifoundation.org]

WANDA A. ADAMS

Vicky Holt Takamine: as concerned about correct hula movements as she is about preserving her culture