Sometimes with parkas or observed by bears through the studio windows, Halau Hula ‘o ‘Olili’ula — Hula School of the Northern Lights — brings the spirit of Ohana to Alaska’s capital.
Ohana means family, and that’s a big part of what brings the dancers together.
Kumu (instructor) Leimomi Martin, with help from her husband, opened the Halau officially in 2008, after a year and a half of preparation to get the nonprofit designation.
“We gear mostly toward the educational system, working with the school system, the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council; we support a lot of community efforts.”
Leimomi’s husband, Robert Martin, handles the books for the Halau and is often around to watch and support the dancers. With a laugh, Robert explained, “Beautiful women and dancing, it’s a pretty good deal.”
Leimomi teaches both ancient (kahiko) and modern (‘auana) hula and began learning herself at a young age.
“I was taught hula at the age of 4, by my grandma back in Hawaii,” Leimomi said. “I decided to do something to bring back the hula in my life personally, and also to share what we call the Ohana spirit.”
Bringing hula to Alaska allows Leimomi to continue a valued tradition and to celebrate her cultural heritage.
“My mother is from Alaska, she’s part Tlingit, part Japanese, but she was raised in Japan. My father is from the Hawaiian Islands,” Martin said. “So I grew up between both places before it even became part of the union.”
She decided to bring hula to Alaska in the form of a school, saying, “The more the merrier.”
“It came with the responsibility, with me as an instructor of hula, to teach what I grew up with and to implement and perpetuate our culture, our dances, our songs — and just find anyone that loved hula...”
Students of the Halau, Leimomi said, are diverse and joined for a number of reasons, with students starting at as young as 11 or into retirement age, former Hawaii residents, those with Hawaiian roots and those who were simply swept away by their experiences in Hawaii.
In the summer months, only the core group are sure to show up to classes Wednesday nights at 6 p.m. at the Filipino Community Hall’s second-floor dance studio, but come fall, there will be more. Leimomi also teaches hula classes through the Community Schools program, and that’s how some dancers discovered the Halau.
Etsu Beebe has been with the Halau the longest of the dancers in attendance Wednesday. She grew up on a farm in Japan and said, “After crop finish, in winter time, there’s nothing to do, people say, “I’m gonna go to Hawaii.”
Not the real Hawaii, Etsu explained, but a Hawaiian themed resort started to resuscitate an old mining village from economic ruin. There were natural hot springs and a group of young women learned hula and performed. This is what Etsu envisioned when she started hula lessons with the Halau. But it was the friendships she developed that kept her involved.
“Everybody nice to me, so I’m still doing, I’m really happy...” Etsu said, to a collective ‘aw’ from the other women in the group.
Karin Massey described the Halau as “just a wonderful sisterhood of beautiful women,” adding, “It makes you feel good, the music is beautiful, it’s just a wonderful thing to be involved in here in Juneau. So any women out there, or men, should join us.”
Karin joined shortly after Etsu because of her love of Hawaii.
“I’ve lived in the Hawaiian Islands off and on throughout my life ... if you’ve ever gone there, the (Ohana) spirit just fills your soul and it never leaves you.”
Theresa Svancara said she sometimes feels she’s “actually a Polynesian spirit in a white body,” which elicited some laughter from the group. “When the music’s playing and we’re moving, our bodies so gracefully and swaying, it feels really good inside. Another part that I really like about it is we’re dancing in a group, we’re almost like a flock of birds, where we’re trying to dance in unison. ...(T)here’s something, when the music starts, or drumming, any of that, I just want to move. It’s a really deep connection. Leimomi teaches us chants, so we get an opportunity to dig even deeper into the culture.”
Theresa’s original reason for getting involved was just to have a little fun. She said she felt she was working constantly and needed something more, so she started taking the class through the Community Schools program, “I started that and immediately just loved it.”
Toni Kramp got involved as a way to do something for herself.
“I’ve always loved Hawaii, lived there for a couple years, and the dancing just totally fills you. It makes you feel really good. It’s wonderful for me and it’s something that I’ve done for myself, because I always do (things) for my boys all these years, so it’s finally time, and it’s been really nice.”
She also said it was “lovely having all these wonderful sisters here...”
Bonnie Herbold’s daughter, grandkids and now a great-grandson live in Hawaii. She visits but never found enough time while in the Islands to take a class. She said she’s always enjoyed dancing, but an added benefit of learning at the Halau is that through chants and songs, she is picking up some of the Hawaiian language.
“I went over there this spring and met my great-grandson and did a lot of Merrie Monarch activities and I was getting pretty good at those street names,” Bonnie said. “I’m not there yet, but I’m getting better.”
Leimomi offered encouraging words, “Bonnie, you’re awesome,” adding to the feel of Ohana everyone described.
For all the benefits of hula — it’s also a low-impact workout, Leimomi said — it’s no wonder it has been so well-received in Juneau. It also survived protestant missionaries in the 1800s.
Leimomi said it was in 1874, with the accession of King David Kalakaua, that hula, once again, officially went public — it was banned or strictly regulated and underground for a period of more than 50 years after being deemed a heathen dance by Protestant missionaries.
King Kalakaua was known as the Merrie Monarch because of his love of gatherings, celebrations and parties, Martin explained.
In addition to weekly practices, the Halau’s dancers perform for community events and are now adding additional practices because they have some good news: they will be performing hula with Keola Beamer, one of Hawaii’s best known musicians.
Leimomi said he found the group through the website she set up, JuneauHula.org, and asked if they would perform with him in October at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center. They will be dancing to a couple songs, Leimomi said, including Green Rose Hula.
Rain or shine or snow, the Halau Hula ‘o ‘Olili’ula will bring the spirit of Hawaii to Juneau. For more information, visit their website or check out a class or performance.