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Hawaiian hula travels the Pacific to reach Okinawa

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-07-24

On July 11, George Naope, a hula dance instructor from Hawaii who has been recognized by the state of Hawaii as a "Living Legend and Golden Treasure", paid a visit to the "Kalakaua" hula dance school in Urasoe. The occasion which brought the 71 year old Naope many miles across the Pacific Ocean was to present a "Certificate of Excellence for Mastery of Hula" to Ekko Ota, a hula dance instructor born here in Okinawa. Although the ceremony was small, the meaning behind Naope's award is quite significant.

Through the teachings of Naope, there has been a huge revival in Hawaiian dance, which is also now spreading across the globe. Ota has helped to bring that part of Hawaii to Okinawa through her 15 years of dedication towards teaching hula to the people of Okinawa. The award she received from Naope gives her the official title of "Kuma Hula", which means "teacher of hula". Along with the award, she also received the Hawaiian name of Mae Mae Kapua Oka Hala.

Ota's first contact with hula actually began as a child. Because of her father's job, Ota was always surrounded by many second and third generation Okinawans from Hawaii. Through this contact, Ota had the privilege of growing up learning many Hawaiian traditions. Hula became part of her childhood, always dancing at gatherings and at parties. "I thought I was Hawaiian when I was little. I was surrounded by all these people from Hawaii and their culture. I grew up more with Hawaiian culture than I did with Okinawan," explained Ota.

Strongly influenced by the Hawaiian traditions her father's friends instilled in her, Ota also began to surf here in Okinawa. She quickly fell in love with the sport, and was well known around Okinawa during a time when surfing was just getting started here. She opened the Kalakaua Surf Shop on Kokusai street in 1975, which became an instant success. Although the shop no longer exists, it has become a part of Okinawan surfing history, and is a hallmark name among older surfers.

With surfing becoming Ota's main love in life, she spent much of her time going back and forth to Hawaii to enjoy the surfing scene and life there. Hula became a distant childhood memory for a while, until a trip to Hawaii in 1985. "I didn't know hula was so beautiful. I forgot about it because of surfing." recalled Ota. "On one of my trips to Hawaii, I went to this beautiful surf spot. But, when I got to the spot, there were no waves. I kept thinking what should I do now. I realized I could do hula," she explained. It was at that moment when Ota rediscovered the joy of hula dancing, and it inspired her to start teaching.

Ota first began to teach children in Hawaii, and upon returning home, she also began to teach hula here in Okinawa. Her hula classes eventually lead to a chance meeting with the legendary "Master Teacher" of hula, George Naope. "I was told by one of my students about a hula teacher that was going to be at a birthday party, and I went along. But, I did not know that he was one of the great masters. I really did not know who he was! At the party, I danced to the Hawaiian song "Ikona". That song was written by Naope sensei, but I didn't know it at the time. He changed so much after that song. He was so happy and pleased," remembered Ota.

The encounter prompted a long relationship with Naope, and brought Chi Matsushima, the grand daughter of the woman whose birthday Ota attended unknowingly, together with Ota as Hula sisters. The two have since worked with Naope on promoting hula here in Okinawa, going back and forth to Hawaii.

Naope is a very gentle and likable man. He is small in size, but stands tall in character and pride. Naope also knows his Hawaiian history very well, but he is by no means bitter over Hawaii's cultural domination by America. "Hula was banned for 75 years by the missionaries, until King Kalakaua brought it back to us," explained Naope." He went on to tell a few more stories, but then while laughing said, "I am American first and Hawaiian second. My friends ask me why I say this, and I tell them that as an American I can express my feelings freely, but as a Hawaiian back in the days of the monarch, I would have been told to shut up!"

He is responsible for starting the "Merrie Monarch" Festival in Hawaii thirty five years ago. The festival, named in honor of King Kalakaua, has brought back the interest in hula among young people. It has become one of the premier events in Hawaii, with over 1,000 participants. When we first started the "Merrie Monarch", we only had two schools. I taught them the chants and the beats, and the schools created and performed their own dances. You see, hula is the language of the heart, and therefore it is the heart of the Hawaiian people. Hula is the ability to create one's most inner feelings, so the creativity is important. When dancing hula, the song becomes yours," explained Naope.

Watching Ota and Chi dance, you begin to understand Naope's words. Their movements flowed gracefully, but with meaning. Hula is the beauty of the Hawaiian culture brought to life.

After 58 years of teaching, Naope still holds the true meaning and love for hula in his heart. It is what inspires him to travel from country to country, promoting hula. "I'm just happy that people all over the world are interested in our gculture and have respect for it," he said. Those interested in Ota's hula classes can call her in English at 878-5654.

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