Jul 22, 2014

Hula-la: Montrachet


At first, I thought I would title this "These Hips Do Lie", because when I moved to Paris and started dancing hula with my new halau (hula school/troupe), my hips were always off. What I had thought were universal dance steps can be done differently by different halau, and I had just joined a troupe where my hips often went left (especially for ami, amikuku, and ka'o steps) while the rest of the class was bumping right. Not to mention they have many "basic" steps we never use in San Francisco: including kalakaua, o, owai, ki'i, and kawelu (which is not the same as the San Francisco kawelu).

photo from Halau Hula o Manoa

Before I left San Francisco, the kumu (teacher/leader) Patrick Makuakane of my halau Na Lei Hulu I Ka We Kiu told me to beware of shoddy dance troupes. And so, in all honesty, this turned out to be a great lesson for me in acceptance and tolerance because my first impression was that this Parisian troupe just didn't know what it was doing. If you ever saw how amazing, talented, charismatic, and widely-revered my San Francisco kumu is, you might understand my bias. But what I at first saw as shortcomings, I gradually saw merely as differences, and now I am thrilled to be schooled in both styles. And I'm proud to tell my San Francisco kumu about my hula exploits here knowing that both troupes approach hula and the Hawaiian culture with a great deal of sincerity, passion, and respect.


Sincerity, authenticity, and the occasional Charlie's Angels pose, that is.


In fact, it turns my two kumu have studied and worked with some of the same people. And funny enough, a year after I moved here, one of my fellow Parisian dancers moved to San Francisco; of course, I sent her to Na Lei I Ka Wekiu. It's like an exchange program in hula. My two kumu recently met in Honolulu, which makes me so happy, it actually brings tears to my eyes. And my current fabulous kumu, Kilohana Silve, has invited my former (and future?) fabulous kumu Patrick Makuakane to come dance in Hawai'i.

photo from phone of kumu Hula o Manoa

Though I haven't flown to Hawaii while living in Paris, my dancing has. My halau here, Hula o Manoa, is featured in short documentary that aired on Hawaiian Airlines. You can watch all 11-minutes, or you can see me and my troupe at 8:25. I don't know why I get so choked up when I am interviewed, but I think it's something all my hula sisters and brothers would understand. I don't want to be clichéd and say "hula is not a hobby, it's a way of life," because of course hula is "just" a hobby to me. But the truth is that hula is something that gets under your skin. I feel it is a real part of me, inseparable, much the way that Paris and French are.

There are plenty of opportunities to perform here, besides my weekly classes, including once at the Fête de la Musique. But nothing beats singing and dancing on the pedestrian bridge and by Notre Dame -- it's hit-and-run hula with a gorgeous Parisian view and is simply a dream come true!


Once, we spend the day dancing at the Paris office of the Polynesian delegation to France. Odd as it sounds to be dancing Hawaiian hula in Paris -- and there is only one truly Hawaiian dance troupe in all of France -- Tahitian dance seems more logical, due to the Polynesian connection. Think Gaugin. French Polynesia came under French rule in 1889, with strong French presence (mostly missionary) since the 1830s and 1840s. These Polynesians received French citizenship in 1946, when the status was changed to an overseas territory, and in 1957, it became, officially, French Polynesia. To meet up with the Tahitian group, we show up with hand-made leis, of course, and also pot-luck dishes. It wouldn't be an island gathering without pot luck.


I had thought I might do some Tahitian dance here, too, in fact, but I couldn't find the right fit. The classes I found were more along the lines of exercise and touristy dance; and I realize that's what my San Francisco kumu was warning me about. I'm sure there are very authentic, sincere Tahitian troupes, mind you; it's just that I didn't stumble across one, and I then found myself too busy to keep searching. My hula troupe, on the other hand, is the real deal and fits me like a glove. Or like a puffy grass skirt, as the case may be.

Around the world, the first hula that most students learn is a traditional dance in honor of Kalani Kawika Kalakaua, Hawaiian King David Kalakaua -- the Merrie Monarch -- who was largely responsible for bringing the dying art of hula (dying due to the influence of the missionaries) back to the Hawaiian culture. In the song, he travels around the world, and so the chant even contains the word "Palani" (Hawaiian word for France).

Now my hips swing in synch with the rest of the dancers, even though I know two different versions of that dance, Kalani Kawika. There is one advantage to being a big part of a small troupe instead of the other way around: I get to dance on stage for our big show this year, as part of the Second Hawaii-France Arts Festival, at the Musée Quai Branly. Though this is one of Paris' major museums, it's less well-known by tourists for the simple reason that it specializes in traditional ethnic arts -- African, American Indian, and Polynesian, for example -- and most tourists would rather see French/European art while visiting France.

For the shows, we have a variety of costumes, including one made of ti leaves and raffia. Here, one of my fellow dancers is, literally, giddy with joy over getting her first-ever ti-leaf skirt. They're heavy when we twirl.


The full-dress real performance costume also includes fern wrist and ankle lei (kupe'e), a head lei (haku), a leafy lei, and kukui-nut necklaces. Another costume is hand-printed on the closest fabric to a traditional hand-pounded kapa cloth that the costume maker could find. It may not do much for the figure, but it's a fun costume to wear.


As part of the festival, we are treated to a lecture by Samuel M. 'Ohukani'ōhi'a Gon III, a living treasure of Hawai'i, known for his studies of Hawai'i's natural world and for helping to preserve the Hawai'ian language and culture. One of his kumu was the legendary John Keolamaka'āinana Lake, whose full name, just for your edification, was John Keolamaka'ainanakalahuiokalaniokamehamehaekolu Lake.

Professor Gon and the halau that he is part of, Halau Mele, have flown from Honolulu to join us in dancing at the festival. That's something of an honor for us as they are the halau in residence at the famous Bishop Museum in Hawaii.


For the festival, we do both ancient (kahiko) and modern (auana) dances; at the Quai Branly and in other spots in and around Paris, including in the town of Versailles; alone or with the other halau; joined or followed on stage by slack-key virtuoso Makana and ukulele virtuoso Tamaine Gardner.

The women don't have all the costume fun. Don't worry, the seated dancer -- one of our honored Hawai'ian guests, who will later treat us to an all-Hawai'ian language (yet fully comprehensible) graphic telling of some hysterically raunchy mythology -- is, indeed, wearing a fabric loincloth (malo).

THE CHEESE: Montrachet

Montrachet is a beautiful raw goat's milk farmhouse cheese from Burgundy produced by only one farmer at Saint-Gengoux-le-National. Normally, this would be cow country, but I'm quite happy that this farmer ventured into goat cheese.

The easiest way to recognize a Montrachet is by the chestnut leaf that tightly wraps it, carefully fastened with a strand of raffia.

Montrachet is firm, thick, and sliceable, yet creamy in the mouth, with a softer layer just beneath the crust. The crust -- rough and bumpy beneath the white mold -- is chewy but surprisingly delicate.


Originally, I find my myself floundering: how on Earth am I going to work in my hula with my cheese? Is there a French cheese with a Tahitian connection? Or should I use the Hirel Vieux, because both "Hirel" and "Hula" start with a silent H when pronounced in French ("ee-REL" and "oo-LA")? It's a lame connection, but it's an idea.

But then I see the photo I take of this Montrachet, and it's like an epiphany. I am no longer in doubt. Anybody who knows anything about Polynesian culture or hula dancing will immediately understand the inspiration: this Montrachet looks like a hula dancer in a skirt of leaves and raffia, materials commonly found on the islands and, therefore, used in traditional hula wear.

And, no, I do not know I will be using this cheese for this story when I take the photo, and I have no control over the colors on the backstage walls, so the fact that I really do look just like the cheese -- all leaves and raffia against a red background -- is just good karma.



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