Hula dance teaches sexuality, spirituality, respect

by Angela Jeffs

“I was around 5 (years old) when my mother and grandmother taught me the basics of Hawaiian hula, steps called ‘ka-holo.’ I’ve loved it ever since,” says Keisuke Yasuda.

We’re seated in his mother’s kitchen in Wadazuka, Kamakura, where one wall is lined with aquariums, a second with computers, the third with the largest TV screen I’ve ever seen, and lastly a counter, separating kitchen from living/working space. Yoko Yasuda offers tea; her black Labrador pushes a soft toy into my lap.

It was Yoko who picked me up from the station. When her son arrives from a meeting, she goes out. Later she returns with her British “boyfriend,” Anandash, having scooped him up from work. Soon after she leaves again, this time on business. A family on the move, without a doubt.

Kei and his mother are the movers and shakers of Yasuda International Ltd., a company devoted to introducing Hawaiian culture to Japan. Together they bring professional dancers and musicians from Hawaii to perform in Aichi Prefecture and Kanto; also the company takes tour groups — 200 at a time last year, the same number June last — from these same areas to Honolulu.

Kei was teased unmercifully at school for liking hula, a style of dance that involved moving his body in ways considered unsuitable for a young male Japanese. The bullying made such a strong impression — he became unhappy, refused to go to school — that at age 12, he stopped dancing, which deepened his anger even further. Two years later, Yoko and Anandash (who had brought Kei up since he was a small child) gave him a choice; go to work (in Japan), or get an education in Hawaii.

Kei’s stay on the islands started badly but ended well. ” I experienced racism — a native Hawaiian schoolmate called me Jap, threw an egg at me. Attitudes changed when people realized how serious I was about hula.”

This was the good part: that he could dance morning, noon and night and receive only encouragement and understanding. On the Hawaiian Islands, hula expresses life and love, the stars and the seasons. From ancient earthy deity-honoring rituals to mating dances performed by couples, hula is as old as time itself, people say — the symbolic movements (ka-hiko, ancient hula) show respect to gods, goddesses and chieftains alike.

Dancers wear native flowers (“lehua”) in their hair, and also leis — more flowers, strung together and hung around the neck and shoulders. “Ti” leaves swing from the waist, offering provocative glimpses of hips, legs and knees.

Dancers sing as they sway to the rhythm of drums and ukuleles — developed, some Hawaiians say from the Portuguese guitar in the late 19th century. After going underground due to Christian missionary influence, hula was popularized but denigrated last century through American movies to be little more than a joke. “I want people to understand that hula is not solely entertainment for tourists, but can be danced and experienced on a different level.”

Kei shows a video made of a recent concert. “Here are some dancers I am helping. You can see the joy, the understanding. The next group is nothing to do with me. Technically fine but devoid of any spiritual feeling. That, sadly, is the standard Japanese interpretation of hula.”

By contrast, film of Kei demonstrating hula shows spirit in action. He moves with fluid ease, his face registering a range of emotions. “Every movement has meaning. When I raise my arm, so, it means mountain. When I do that, it means rain; this gesture signifies Hawaii is No. 1 — the best place on Earth.”

Female movements are soft, he says. Male movements are more aggressive, not unlike the ritualistic war chants of the Maoris. “This is not surprising, since Polynesian cultural roots are close.”

With a great will to succeed and many promises of support from his Hawaiian friends tucked under his ti, Kei returned to Japan at age 20 and tried to live at home. “But I’d changed, grown up, learned how to cook for myself. Here I had four eyeballs staring at me constantly. Since last year I’ve had my own place, near Ofuna, and come here to work. Most of the time, though, I’m practicing. I practice every day, but never get tired. I love hula too much.”

Life in Japan is different to how he remembered, and sometimes he still squirms with rebellious thoughts. “Why can I call my mother Mama at home, but have to call her O-kaasan in the outside world? Also why does Japan have to take something deep and beautiful like hula, and change it to be perfect, empty and cold? I see it as my lifework here to restore spiritual content to hula, to help Japanese people appreciate and respect its roots.”

He chose business studies in respect to his great-great-grandfather Zenjiro, who was an Edo-period banker. “He always said he was learning . . . in his case about money.” But Kei intends to be always learning about hula — from teachers in Hawaii like George Naope, a Hawaiian national treasure, and William E. Ching, who teaches educational hula.

Sadly it’s no use trying to get tickets for Yasuda International’s next concerts in Tokyo’s Nakano and Oimachi, because they are booked out. Move fast for next July — half the seats are already booked.

Now 22, Kei is clear about what he finds so rewarding in hula. “It’s not only providing me with a career and a way forward in life. It teaches me spiritually how to be a man, what it means to be a man.”