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A Cowtown Hula

November 15th, 2011 · 1 Comment · Road Less Travelled, Time and Place

 On a visit to Hawaii’s Big Island during a recent recession, Shelley Buck learns it’s not necessary to buy a luau show ticket in order to experience the hula.

Forget the bare lava fields, palm trees, and rain forest. On a flattish area of the Big Island of Hawaii, just to the northwest of mist-shrouded Mauna Kea volcano, lies a world no traveler who hasn’t been there could anticipate. There’s rangeland. Red cattle with white faces are scattered over golden spreading meadows, their noses down, chewing the rich island landscape. And there are cowboys. Cowboys who hula?

The region’s Parker Ranch, on land granted to an American settler by Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I, has been operating since 1847. Cowboys have been on the land throughout its history. Local residents call them paniolo, a name that comes from hispanolo,  the term used to describe the skilled horsemen from Mexico who initially trained Hawaiian ranch workers in roping, riding, and cattle handling.

But do they hula too? To find out, I’ve come to the premier cowtown in the Big Island’s ranching region, to watch a hula society perform. Dancers from Tahiti are appearing. I spotted an announcement for this dance on a bulletin board yesterday while munching on a slice of pizza and waiting for a sluicing downpour to ease up.

So today, I’ve come back up from Waikoloa, where I’m staying, amid the lava floes and petroglyphs on the Kohala Coast. On the coast, tropical paradises have been created specially for well-heeled tourists. Although the Tahitian dancers will be doing a show over there tonight, I would rather drive the twenty miles to watch them in this rural town. I have a hunch that the festivities here will be less formal and more lively.

This inland hinterland doesn’t get the publicity of more exotic settings. It doesn’t even look like you think Hawaii should. Although the Big Island has torrid jungles, South Sea harbors, cliffs, lava-streaming volcanos, rain forests—the works—these northern plains are as close as the island gets to the Wild West. In the distance to the right, the blue half-masked mountain rises, standing in for the Rockies, like some scenic backdrop in a John Wayne movie.

Coming along the Kawaihae Road, I catch a glimpse of the blue haunch of the Mauna Kea as I reach Milestone 61. The volcano is dodging behind clouds like a flirting fan dancer. Flanking the road are small farm houses. I pass occasional splendid horses.

The small town, when I get to it, looks like a cowboy kind of place. The shopping center is done up like a horse barn, dark red with white trim. I go inside. If the rain pours again—as it did in torrents yesterday—this party isn’t going to be washed out.

I follow the sound of shouts and drum thumps. There’s a crowd in front of the pizza parlor. Under a massive vaulted skylight, musicians are sitting. Folding chairs are set out for the audience.  A lot of women and children, and  a few men are occupying them. It’s a weekday, and the crowd is made up of local people instead of tourists. Except for me.

A dance is already in progress. Skylights in the high-vaulted barn ceiling shed big rectangles of sunlight over the moving dancers. Then there’s a pause.

“The next dance is for women only,” the master of ceremonies calls out.  Local women hop up from their folding chairs to join the visiting Tahitians on the dance floor. What follows is a little like a teaching session for a square dance. There’s a walk-through of the motions. A dancer from Tahiti smiles encouragement to a doubtful local girl. Then, it is all put together.

This dance is all about arms and hands. Always, as a mainlander, I thought hula was mostly in the hips, but this reminds me of Indonesian or Balinese dance.  Arms, like waves, interweave, as the women move on the floor. Arms interlace. The whole is a study in the geometry of emotion, made by the women’s hands.

A mixed dance follows. No one is in elaborate costume . One of the Tahitians is still in her curlers. The mixed dance is followed by another that’s for just guys. If there are ranch hands among them, I can’t tell. I see a surfer-type in flowered jams, and teenagers with oversized pants, belted low, which drag on the ground. Nobody is wearing a cowboy hat today.

Once again, there’s this motion, this enthusiastic beat, and this palpable reverence for the Tahitian leader of the dance. I realize I am watching a Pacific Island master class. Polynesians are teaching Polynesians the old ways. But the mood reminds me too of a barn-raising party in some Fifties Western movie.

At a break, a dancer refers me to someone at the back. The hula master is away, explains an enormous warm man who seems to be doing the honors for the local hula society. The Tahitian dancers have come to Hawaii under the society’s sponsorship, he tells me.

I explain I want to do an article about this, to bring some notice to this less- visited part of the Big Island. I’m not sure if the idea will be a welcome one, but it is. Catching me by surprise, the substitute hula master opens his own great arms and enfolds me in a bear hug.

Mahalo nui,” he thanks me, and for a moment, I want to stay until the cows come home.

© Shelley Buck, 2011. Used with permission. Shelley Buck is the author of Floating Point, a memoir of living on a boat just off Silicon Valley during the millennial technology boom.



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