The first hula dancers were the elements, explains the kuma hula (hula leader). The wind moved over the earth and the trees began to sway; it moved over the waters, and the currents roiled. These “hula ancestors” gave the dance its natural movement.
Hula in its most generic term is the folk dance of Hawaii — but specifically it’s an extension of its environment. For the UNUKUPUKUPU troupe, performing for two weeks starting Wednesday at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, their environment, the big island of Hawaii, is volcanic. “It’s a living island,” says Taupouri Tangaro, hula leader and chairman of the Hawaiian lifestyles and humanities department at the Hawaii Community College. “It’s still burning, so for us it’s one of the most sacred places in the world.”
Tangaro and his 25-member troupe, who range in age from 9 to 62, arrive Sunday and perform at the Library of Congress before beginning their twice-daily dances for the festival. Intuitively, it would seem that hula dancers might travel lightly. They are often portrayed in the pop culture as loosely assembled welcome parties for tourists or scantily clad women at luaus. But UNUKUPUKUPU is bringing drums and gourd implements. They’ll have dance sticks, regalia and plants with specific alchemic properties. They’ll establish their Kuaha, their universe, and build their hula shrines. They’re transporting over 2,200 pounds of stuff in all, at a cost of roughly $10,000, because anything less, say organizers, would be inauthentic.
“We’re not just trying to export hula as an entertainment,” says Tangaro, “we’re trying to create an opportunity. Trying to bring our village, and to bring hula within the context of how we live it here at home. . . . Hula keeps us in tune with our ancient people.”
This year’s 45th celebration of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival focuses on the themes of “Citified: Arts and Creativity East of the Anacostia River,” “Creativity and Crisis,” which features an unfolding of the AIDS memorial quilt, and “Campus and Community.” That portion of the festival commemorates the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Act, which established land-grant universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The dancers are part of a roughly 80-member Hawaiian contingent taking part in “Campus and Community” with activities that include craft workshops and question-and-answer sessions.
Gail Makuakane-Lundin, assistant to the chancellor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, says the “challenge was to get the shipment on the May 10 barge out of Hilo Harbor to make it to the West Coast and then transported by semi-trailer to the East Coast.” It was delivered to the Smithsonian on Thursday without any real hitch, besides the separation anxiety some troupe members felt about shipping off their handmade hula sticks with their “energies and spirit” embedded in each.
That transported community becomes a gift to Washington, says Tangaro. “When we dance hard and chant hard, our bodies begin to sweat. It falls back on the ground and that’s what we give back to the environment from our inner springs. So that’s what we leave behind.”
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival begins Wednesday and runs through July 8.