Under the Hula Moon

In Search of the Sacred

By Jocelyn Fujii

A recent trip to Kaua‘i has given me new insight on life, and, more specifically, the profound threads connecting seemingly disparate forms of art. I flew to Kaua‘i to attend a memorial service for longtime friend Bob Hamada, an extraordinary wood-turner who died recently at 93 years old. I knew that Bob had devoted his life to bringing new life to fallen logs, and that he spared no effort, took no shortcuts and did everything right to bring the highest integrity to his world-renowned native wood bowls.

At the service, Kelvin Ho, an esteemed cultural practitioner on Kaua‘i, elegantly shared his thoughts on the “layers and spirit” unveiled in the turning and shaping of wood. In an ensuing conversation, Ho and I agreed that there is a parallel in certain forms of hula and, ultimately, in so many other movements involving circular dynamics and the transmutation of energy.

Ho explained: “I used to be a potter, and in pottery or wood-turning, or when you work with anything spinning, you have to find the center.” The nature of the spinning, as in wood turning, dance and the potter’s wheel, is that the energy moves outward as a dynamic force, and something tangible is added to life. With its velocity and centrifugal power, the process of turning wood is not just sawdust and shape, but the tremendous energy of creation.

The energy moves outward as a dynamic force, and something tangible is added to life.

With each revolution of the lathe, with each of his thousands of hand-polishing strokes, Hamada released streams of energy and force into the world. As the bowl took shape and the layers of wood grain and pattern revealed themselves, slowly, irrevocably, a story emerged: the story of the tree, its hardships and history, and, finally, its destiny as a vessel of beauty and grace, given expression by human hands. 

I see a similar process at work whenever I watch certain hula dancers. With a centered, focused and grounded dancer, much like the wood-turner’s focus at the center of the bowl, the dancer’s gift is the story of the dance unfolding, the energy moving from the metaphysical to the physical, from the unseen to the seen, much like the grain of the tree revealing itself at the power of the wood turners hands. From the dancer’s ki — her center— and through her hands, feet, facial expressions and body, the story of the dance finds a home, then reaches out to our hearts and minds. 

“In wood turning you’re working with grain and layers,” continued Ho, a former potter and the father of a hula dancer. “As with clay, you’re using height and elevation to control your form. It’s the same with hula. The energy wants to radiate outward, take form and be appreciated.” Sometimes, said Ho, if the dancer moves too far from her center, the dance could move toward pure entertainment and may lose its sacred quality.

Kaua‘i triggered other revelations and reminiscences, some lighthearted, some less so. While driving over the Wailua River and passing the old Coco Palms Hotel, I recalled the Sunday dinners of my childhood, when my family and I gathered in the thatched Coco Palms dining room and listened to the haunting call of the conch shell as it signaled the nightly torch-lighting ceremony. Today the conch and torch lighting are standard fare in entertainment venues, but at the Coco Palms, which many say originated these traditions (and where Bob Hamada was a longtime maintenance manager and king of pyrotechnics), they were exotic and novel, captivating people from around the world. And, always, these rituals preceded hula performances. 

According to The Story of the Coco Palms Hotel, a peerless bookby David Penhallow, now David Scott, ‘Iolani Luahine, known as the “high priestess” of hula, danced at the Coco Palms in 1955. Black-and-white photos show her dancing at night on a platform on the banks of the Coco Palms lagoon. She wears her signature white dress and a maile lei, and her feet are bare, as they always were when she danced. In another photo near the lagoon, she leans over with a shovel in a ceremonial planting of a coconut tree.  A former curator of Hulihe‘e Palace in Kona, Luahine, who died in 1978, remains unequalled in the annals of hula, venerated for the singular, mystical style that many refer to as “sacred hula.”

In the late 1970s I attended a spiritual retreat in windward O‘ahu given by a master of siddha yoga who was visiting from India. Luahine was there. She joined the circle in an all-night chant and appeared to enter a trance. It was a full moon of special significance in Indian culture, and her offering, her powerful style of mystical hula, had a force and dynamism that elevated the entire retreat. I look back on that weekend now, reflecting upon Kelvin Ho’s insights and Bob Hamada’s bowls. I am reminded that the inspired dancing of masters like Luahine are spirit made manifest, energy finding a form, not unlike the hand-made vessels of a master like Bob Hamada.

“If you bring things back to the center,” says Ho, “that’s where the sacredness lives.” 

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