A Complicated Dance
When Jerry Hopkins, then a Honolulu journalist with a strong interest in all things Hawaiian but especially hula, began to write The Hula, first published in 1982, there was nothing like it. Thirty years later, there still isn’t.
This goes to many of the challenges faced by Hopkins, or anyone who tries to write about the Islands’ possibly most treasured and unique cultural practice: It will be controversial.
Kumu hula and the artisans who work hand-in-hand with them agree on many things. They disagree on just as many others. They can be clannish; an outsider, regardless of ethnicity, number of generations in the Islands, or other factors, may not be allowed in. It depends on the kumu–their personality, what they were taught, what they believe is important, what they believe about the sacredness of what goes on on the pa, the hula enclosure. Some believed then, and do now, that no haole (however you define the term–stranger, white) should write about na mea Hawaii. Period.
Hopkins was writing at a time when the hula, along with all things Hawaiian, was just beginning its Renaissance.
Hopkins was also writing at a time when many of the elders were still living, breathing sources. And many let him in: Auntie Nona Beamer, who reviewed the manuscript; kumu hula Maiki Aiu Lake, whose hula students populate the most prestigious hula stages today. The new generation– Snowbird Bento, Kaleo Trinidad, Kaui Kamanao and even the fascinating but way, way out there Mark Kealii Hoomalu–were barely born.
In redoing this book, the publishers, Hopkins and editor Stillman, chose not to update. There is no “and since then…” chapter. It’s the only thing I missed and longed for in reading this work. Someone will write it. But it will take a brave soul: It is so easy to go wrong in hula, and no work will go uncriticized.
Hopkins, then and now (he has lived in Thailand for 18 years but still visits the Islands), knows this best. And was willing to take the heat, making observations and asides that some deemed disrepectful, most of which have been excised from this new work.
By email, he wrote the Weekly: “The artistry of dance, along with the joy that accompanies performance, often has been countered by jealousy and a certain–well, let’s be frank–bitchiness. Hula is not exempt from this. Surely, there were some in hula who were not thrilled that a haole was writing their history.”
But he had some supporters, too, many of them hula “royalty.” Auntie Nona taught his daughter. The late brother of Israel Kamakawiwoole, Skippy Kamakawiwoole, a friend of Hopkins, encouraged him in characteristic spare, local style. “You’ve come this far,” he said. The implication: You can’t stop now. If not you, who?
(I well recall when The Honolulu Advertiser hired the late kumu hula John Kaimikaua, to be, in a sense, hula dance critic. This man, who would found the Molokai Ka Piko Hula, one of the most important hula festivals of its time, couldn’t do it. It was just too tricky, even with his credentials; his writing, despite his deep knowledge, came off as pallid–he simply stopped turning in assignments.)
Hopkins admits that there’s something that appeals to him in being the outsider.
So he persevered. And, when publisher Buddy Bess of Bess Press finally wrestled down the details of getting rights to reprint the book, he, too, knew the challenge and recruited editor Amy Stillman, a part-Hawaiian who graduated from UH Manoa who was familiar with Hopkins’s work.
“When Buddy first approached me, I agreed with him that the richness of the information (especially on the 1930s-1950s) had not yet been superceded. The biggest challenge was to respect Jerry’s interpretations while removing expressions that could be read as offensive, or portraying Hawaiians negatively,” she emailed the Weekly.
She did a fine job, and a respectful one–to Hopkins and to hula.
Should you dig deep in your wallet and buy this book?
Yes. If you want to hear the voices of people who lived, taught, worked and danced when hula kahiko was hidden, when even dancers understood the words only as cues, when few knew the kaona, yes. If you hula, and, if you feel, as I do, never more beautiful and connected to Hawaiian culture than when you are dancing, yes.
And if you are a writer, and know hula, and are brave, write the sequel. We are waiting for it.
Jerry Hopkins and Rebecca Kamiliia Erikson edited by Amy Kuuleialoha Stillman Bess Press, 2011, 182 pages, $34.95