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Okinawan hula team takes third place in Hawaiian competition

By: David Knickerbocker

Date Posted: 2002-02-15

Last summer a talented team of local hula dancers known as Kalakaua was invited by Uncle George Naope to participate in the 21st Annual King David Kalakaua Invitational Hula Festival held Nov. 15-17 on the big island of Hawaii. This was a significant event because Naope is one of the most accomplished teachers of the hula, and he’s taken an active interest in Okinawa’s Kalakaua team. In 1998 the hula legend had paid a visit to the Kalakaua Hula Dance School in Urasoe City to present a Certificate of Excellence for Mastery of Hula to Ekko Maemaekapuaokahala Ota, the Okinawan team’s hula dance instructor. Although the ceremony was small, the meaning behind it was significant. Over the years, Ota has been instructing a gifted group of local dancers in the art of hula. The Annual King David Kalakaua Invitational Hula Festival is one of the most widely respected hula competitions in the world, and as the Kalakaua Hula Dance School team was the first hula team to represent Okinawa in the Hawaiian festival, this was a huge honor and great accomplishment for the group.

Though respected by all and feared by some, Master Kumu Hula Uncle George Naope is without a doubt one of the world's most widely recognized hula instructors. He has taught thousands and regularly travels the world helping other hula students and teachers master the art form. In September the legendary hula instructor visited Kalakaua once again to ensure that the team was ready for their upcoming event. A strict, relentless teacher of the art, Naope and the Kalakaua team spent hours upon hours of intense preparation to ensure that the motions, sounds and chants were all on point. Though strict with his students, he is even stricter with teachers. "If a student is doing something wrong in a competition, the judges blame the teacher," he says. "Students will do as they are taught, so if they are not doing hula properly, they are not doing anything wrong. They have been taught incorrectly." He also noted that teachers don't make great students, students make great teachers. “Teaching is not easy, and to teach perfect form is a true art in itself,” says Naope. During his visit, he was as relentless and hard on Ota as he was on her students. During their intense practices, the team showed a strong bond of unity in their dance. They were well rehearsed, and the work was tiresome. After practicing a Kahiko dance with chants, the women were sweating and breathing heavily as if they had just run a marathon, but as soon as the song had ended and the dance concluded Naope told them to begin again, and then again.

A few months after Naope’s intense practices, the group finally flew to the big island of Hawaii to participate in the event they had been training for all year. Though the first Okinawan team to compete in the festival, they came back victorious, having placed third overall as well as taking third place for individual performances. Naope’s persistence, Ota’s instruction and the dancers’ perseverance had paid off. Auana Lokomaikai, Kahiko Lokomaikai and Auan KupunaWahine, three of Ota’s most gifted students, placed third overall in the competition. The group has shown through their achievements in the competition that Okinawa’s team is a powerful force and a gifted branch of the international hula scene.

Since Naope is one of the most accomplished teachers of the hula, this invitation was a great honor for the team. For his lifelong work in hula, he has been recognized by the state of Hawaii as a “Living Legend and Golden Treasure.” Naope has become a fixture in the Hawaiian hula scene and has used his talent to maintain and increase the global presence of hula. He began learning hula at the age of three and has taught the art form for 54 years to thousands of students. Among his teachers was the revered Iolani Luahine. He has learned enough to become a master in the art but believes that hula must focus on the future rather than the past in order to continue to thrive through the ages. “We shouldn’t be writing about what happened 100 years ago. We weren’t there,” he says. “We should write about today so that the children and grandchildren can see what life was like before their time.”

According to Naope, his grandmother forced him to learn the art at an early age. Since his start in hula so long ago, he has learned much about life. Aside from proper dance form, he emphasizes respect for self and others as the primary principle of hula. “Respect is the principle for everything,” he says. Naope also encourages all of his students to learn about their country and not just about Hawaii, urging the Kalakaua students to study the ancient forms of Japanese dance and their own history. This way, when they dance, they are not representing Hawaii but their own country. Naope has lived a long life and has seen and learned much along the way. He knows a lot about history and pushes others to learn from it as well, but he also encourages hula students to continue the heritage of hula by creating their own dances and songs rather than chanting and dancing to stories of old. "I saw the effects of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan, so that's what my generation wrote about, but today's performers need to write about what they see today, not about something they did not see."

Naope has visited Okinawa on several occasions throughout the years and says he enjoys the island very much. He feels that Hawaii and Okinawa have a lot in common because they have both retained their own ancient heritage and culture, and in many ways both still seem like independent nations. The hula master says he perceives a bond between Okinawa and Hawaii in the feeling and forms of dance. "I am always surprised when I see dancers doing the same moves and steps used in hula. It is as if we have some kind of ancient tie between us," he says. Naope believes hula is for everyone, not just the Hawaiians. During their exceptional performance in the competition, the Okinawan Kalakaua team proved his philosophy by earning third place on Hawaiian turf through technical skill in the dance.

Okinawan-born Kalakaua hula instructor Ekko Maemaekapuaokahala Ota has spent years perfecting the art form to bring hula to the island through her 18 years of teaching. She was first introduced to the dance in her childhood, and it wasn’t long before she adopted the dance as her own. Over time, her skill as a dancer and instructor has increased, and she is now one of the most accomplished and respected “Kuma Hula,” or teachers of hula.

The Kalakaua hula team spent hours and hours preparing for their big event. As a result, they have brought home a spectacular achievement. Congratulations to Ota and the Kalakaua team for their stunning achievement in such a widely respected international event.

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