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Undulating over 50 — because you’re never too old to learn to hula

Meet the Hula Maidens, a group of kupuna (or senior) dancers ranging in age from 54 to 82.

Irene Miyashiro demonstrates hula-dance arm movements.Fox Butterfield

KAIELUA, Hawaii — Among my career aspirations, it is safe to say that “hula dancer” never rose to the top. But there I was not long ago, lunching on fish tacos at a tiny shopping plaza on the island of Kauai, when suddenly I was seized by the urge to sway alongside a half-dozen women wearing bold island print skirts and brash floral headpieces. All were barefoot, none was under 50, and all wore smiles that stretched from Kauai to the mainland as they told stories with their hands, hearts, and hips.

These were the Hula Maidens, or at least some of them. At times this group of kupuna (or senior) dancers has numbered up to 30 women ranging in age from 54 to 82. COVID concerns trimmed the group to about 14 women who practice several times a week with Beverly Kehaulani Kauanui, an island icon who has been singing, dancing, and playing Hawaiian music since she was in an Oahu playpen more than 70 years ago. Her age alone earns Kauanui the title of Auntie, an honorific that adds to the sense of instant familiarity on the most northern island in the Hawaiian chain.

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Auntie Beverly, as she is known, wears her largely white hair in a poufy pompadour and sings in a rich, deep voice as she strums her ukulele. Her throaty laugh peppers a steady commentary that reveals an encyclopedic knowledge of Hawaiian history, language, and culture. Her position as the group’s teacher also gives her the title of kumu, which means “source of knowledge” in Hawaiian.

“Hula is interpretive dancing,” Auntie Beverly tells her dancers. “When you are dancing, you are translating the story for the audience. It’s not just doing a dance. It’s telling a story from the heart. What you do with your hands is telling people what your dance is about.”

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Gracefully raising their arms, the Hula Maidens tell a story about the sky.Fox Butterfield

About 15 years ago, Auntie Beverly took over the hula troupe from her brother-in-law. Among her early students was Ida Mickle, who volunteered her lanai for the practice session I attended here on the northern coast of Kauai. Mickle moved to the island from San Diego in 2007. Today she is one of the group’s lead dancers, but at the outset, Auntie Beverly had her doubts.

“She had no hope for me,” Mickle said. “She said, ‘Ida didn’t know her left foot from her right.’”

True that, said Auntie Beverly: “I watched her, and she did pretty good. Only thing was, she didn’t know what was up, what was down, what was left, what was right. I thought: She won’t come back.”

Mickle confessed that she came to her first hula class with the goal of meeting people, not morphing into a Hula Maiden.

“I was just going to observe,” she said. “But there is no observing. Beverly wants you up and dancing.”

Maddy Melberg, a transplant from Seattle, said she thought she had encountered tough as an executive at Microsoft. Then she met Auntie Beverly. At her first hula class, Melberg said, “She kept picking on me. I went home in tears. How do you do ‘Swan Lake’ at your first ballet lesson?”

Like Mickle, Melberg stuck with it.

“Hula is sacred,” she said.

It’s also harder than it looks. “Stop bouncing,” another dancer admonished as I stumbled through my first class, totally unaware that what I was doing looked more like disco than hula. Seeing my quizzical expression, she offered this advice: “Keep your knees bent.”

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Sure enough, bent knees prevent bobbing shoulders — and as the knees move sideways, the hips gently follow.

Irene Miyashiro urges Corinne Monty to keep her shoulders still during a Hula Maidens practice session.Fox Butterfield

The basic hula step is called a kaholo, the Hawaiian word for “nimble.” It’s surprisingly uncomplicated: Step, tap, step, tap. Wisely, as I launched my first kaholos, I had positioned myself behind Irene Miyashiro, who took up hula as a sophomore at Kauai’s Kapaa High School in the late 1960s. Miyashiro took a few decades off to marry and raise four daughters before a friend asked her to perform at their 25th high school reunion. The sinuous moves came right back, “like riding a bicycle.”

Hula, said Miyashiro, who was born and raised on a pineapple farm,” is part of my heritage,” helping her to “connect with the spirits” that inhabit the sandy beaches, lush canyons, and 3,000-foot mountains of Kauai.

Those connections come through in the near-beatific, mega-watt smile Miyashiro sports when she hulas. She also creates the floral hairpieces the dancers wear. Miyashiro’s graceful arm movements take the place of words. A circle above her head says “sun.” A rolling of her wrists means “waves.” A tap on her chest translates to “heart.”

But Miyashiro’s real hula weapon is an expressive set of tailfeathers.

“It’s good to have a big butt,” she explains.

All that fanny-wiggling sent early-19th-century Protestant missionaries right over the edge. They banned hula, only to see it restored by King Kamehameha II in the 1830s. Hawaii’s last king, David Kalakua, loved a good party so much that he was known as the Merry Monarch. King David made sure that hula was included in the many festivals held around the islands.

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In the early 1960s, Hollywood fell in love with hula. Much of “Blue Hawaii,” a cheesy 1961 rom-com that starred Elvis Presley and Angela Lansbury, was filmed at the old Coco Palms Hotel on Kauai’s Wailua Beach. That was where a very young Auntie Beverly performed as part of a Hawaiian musical group. Soon enough, Elvis (accompanied by bodyguards) was part of Auntie Beverly’s regular beach volleyball game.

“When he was there, he was like one of the family,” she said. She said she doubts that hula exerted any real influence on Presley’s hip oscillations.

“He was good, yeah, but not as good as the locals,” she said.

Hula practice concludes with several repetitions of “Henehene Kou’Aka.” This lively standard includes the lyrics “Our eyes have met, our lips not yet.” At the refrain, “always a good time for you and I,” no one in the class can help but laugh.

Therein lies the magic: Hula is fun.

“Well, if it’s not fun, don’t come back,” Auntie Beverly declares.

No worries: I’ll be back.

Elizabeth Mehren can be reached at ejmehren@gmail.com.