The Washington Post

Hawaiian hula troupe brings ‘living island’ culture to Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Second semester Hula Track students of Hawaii Community College's Hawai'i Lifestyles Program publicly display their learning during the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival held in Hilo, Hawaii. (Photo courtesy of Hawai'i Community College, University of Hawai'i.)

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.

Christylez Bacon will be featured in this summer's Folklife Festival. (Susana Raab/ACM; Courtesy Smithsonian Institution)

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.

A view of the 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. (Jeff Tinsley)



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read
Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
What can babies teach students?
Unconventional warfare with a side of ale
A veteran finds healing on a dog sled
Play Videos
A fighter pilot helmet with 360 degrees of sky
Is fencing the answer to brain health?
Scenes from Brazil's Carajás Railway
Play Videos
How a hacker group came to Washington
The woman behind the Nats’ presidents ‘Star Wars’ makeover
How hackers can control your car from miles away
Play Videos
Philadelphia's real signature sandwich
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
Europe's migrant crisis, explained

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.