At the hula and Polynesian dance recital on night of June 19, the Aloha Center Ballroom filled with friends and supporters to watch the Polynesian dance class and the three hula classes perform what they had been learning all semester. Students from the mainland admitted while the prospect of taking a Polynesian dance class interested them, they were not sure if they would fit in with those who already knew the dances, but after the recital became very proud of their decision.
Emi Wainwright, a senior from Florida majoring in psychology, performed with the Polynesian class. She had never taken a dance class and said, “I kept in mind I was performing for a purpose beyond just getting a good grade. I was performing for my Heavenly Father. Having a bigger purpose gave me a drive to do well. I had not taken a dance class before this, but it was such a welcoming environment and taught me something a school on the mainland could never teach me.”
After opening remarks from their instructor Ramona Beltran, otherwise known as Aunty Bobbie, the classes entered the ballroom. Consisting of mostly female students and six male students in total, the students stood calmly as they waited for their turn to perform. For the female majority, the hula classes wore white shirts, complemented by black skirts reaching down to their ankles. The Polynesian dance class wore all black, complemented by pink feathers in their hair.
The first hula class opened the recital by performing with a series of Hawaiian chants. They were accompanied by Aunty Bobbie on the ipu, a traditional Hawaiian percussion instrument made from a gourd. With the precise hits of Aunty Bobbie’s hand on the ipu, the performers moved their arms and legs with the synchronized grace of a well-oiled machine. Each beat of the ipu accentuated the movement of their arms and hips as the teacher led her students.
Aunty Bobbie explained how each hula class had a theme to their dances for the recital. The first group performed dances inspired by legends of the islands, including legends of Princess Kuluau and King Kamehameha.
Wainwright added, “Dance is a very important part of Polynesian culture, so it was really good to feel like I was actively part of the culture, even though it is very different than what I am used to.”
Her Polynesian dance class came on after several more performances by the hula classes. After performing a dance which included staccato drumbeats and heavy, fast stomping, the group transitioned to perform the pahoho, which Wainwright and her friend Kari Marquis said was their personal favorite.
Moving their arms like slow and steady waves of the ocean, the Polynesian class quickly transitioned from the intense drumbeat-heavy dance before. It was a moment for the performers to be able to calm themselves after the previous, more intense dance.
“In the pahoho,” Wainwright explained, “there’s a part where we all bow, which is supposed to represent presenting something to a king. We’re picking flowers and presenting them to him, which makes me think of Heavenly Father. I don’t come from a place where we have a king ruling the land, so in my mind, the king I’m presenting to is Heavenly Father.
“It’s a really pretty, graceful dance,” she added. “You feel like a princess when you do it. In the beginning, it was hard to do all the steps, plus I hurt my toe hiking a few days ago. Once you learn the basics, you can focus on polishing your steps and getting in the right mood for dancing.”
Kari Marquis, a freshman and undeclared major from California, concurred, saying, “The dance feels like the beach because the movements we make resemble the waves. The hardest part was how many of the dances we had to learn plus this one, but I never really felt uncomfortable because even though I didn’t grow up with these dances. Aunty Bobbie was so welcoming and gave me so much aloha spirit.”
The hula classes continued performing, showcasing dances from the main regions of Polynesia including the haka oli, a dance which used both English and Hawaiian chants in the accompaniment.
Noelle Oldham, a senior majoring in theatre education from Florida, had previously taken a hula class in 2017, but loved it so much she decided to take it once again before she graduated. “When I took it the class was a whole new world for me just learning about Polynesian culture.
“Through the process of dance, I felt like I was cultured more effectively. In hula, we’re telling a story through our hands. Stories of ancestors and legends are being told through our hands and our emotions and so, not only are we learning about the dances, but we’re learning about the history. Dancing is really a way of speaking without words.”
For the grand finale of the recital, all of the dancers were called in front of the audience, and performed “The Drums of The Islands,” which was Oldham’s personal favorite. “In the song, we go through the main Polynesian cultures and use steps from each place, making gestures as if to say ‘Yes, we’re different cultures, but we’re all united in Polynesia.’”
After graduating, Oldham plans to continue dancing the hula and other Polynesian dances for years to come. “I want to, in every way, keep learning more about Polynesian cultures, and I’m glad BYUH allowed me the opportunity to take a class like this.”