Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Moved to smile — Hula dancing shines light, laughter in winter season
By Jenny Neyman
A minicrisis was brewing in the makeshift dressing area at the Sterling Senior Center for the Na Manu Olu hula dancers Monday.
Jan Fena, one of the dancers from the group based at the Soldotna Senior Center, had forgotten her costume for the second half of the performance that was scheduled to begin at 12:15 p.m. — 15 minutes away.
Not to worry. The tightknit group — they call themselves hula sisters — was on it. One fellow dancer had an extra black skirt Fena could wear, while another braved the snowstorm outside to drive home and get a spare red top for Fena to borrow.
With only a few minutes to spare, she returned and gave Fena the top, while the rest of the group gave her a good-natured hard time.
“I hope this fits,” Fena said, eyeing the red sweater.
“Suck it in,” came the response.
“They bond very tightly,” said Bunny Chong, the group’s founder and choreographer. “They compliment each other and scold each other. We know if somebody forgets something, look — she tries to get out of (dancing), but everyone went to get her things.”
Na Manu Olu hula group, Hawaiian for The Graceful Birds, celebrated its fifth anniversary at the Soldotna Senior Center’s annual luau in June. The group began as a free class Chong taught at the senior center.
“We heard from Jan (Fena, the senior center director) there was going to be hula dancing. We just all said, ‘Hey, we haven’t done that yet,’” said Glenda Graham.
Estelle Parks said the group had already been doing line dancing, so hula was another fun thing to try.
“It’s like being in an extended family,” Graham said. “It’s just a wonderful group of people, and the dances are really fun to learn. Bunny is an excellent teacher and it’s good exercise.”
“Physical exercise and mental exercise, because it’s hard,” Parks said.
Chong said she’s proud of how far they’ve come and how dedicated the group is to dancing, including ladies up to their 80s, some with hectic schedules and various physical challenges.
Hula involves intricate hand gestures and swaying body movements. They can be basic when starting out, but Na Manu Olu has been at it for long enough that Chong tries to come up with more intricate movements.
“The purpose of hula is to tell a story with your hands and facial expressions. The facial expressions express what the heart is saying. The feet movement is the choreographer’s challenge to the dancers, is what I say. But they’re a challenge to me because I’ve got to think of what else to do to keep them interested,” Chong said.
Most importantly, Chong said, even if all else fails, just remember to smile.
“The mission of hula is to dance for joy, so if I see panic on their faces, I scold them. ‘You look frightened, you’re supposed to be joyful,’” Chong said. “I tell them, just go out there and smile and get everyone else to smile. If you make a mistake, keep going, pretend the other gal made it and the main thing is to have fun doing it.”
At the Sterling Senior Center, the group performed hulas to holiday standards, including, “Oh Holy Night,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “Mele Kalikimaka.”
The Silver Belles, a group of line dancers from the Soldotna Senior Center, many of whom are also hula dancers, performed a few numbers. And the Pua Mae Ole — “Never-Fading Flower” — hula dancers, made up of the Murray family, of Sterling, also performed.
In contrast to the snow outside, the dancers brought a burst of color and warmth to the senior center. That’s the whole point, Chong said.
“We dance for smiles. The more you smile, the more we enjoy it,” she said.