Hula instructor Akiko Colton spends her day living and breathing the ancient Hawaiian dance known as the hula at her studio in Eugene.
“It’s part of my life, so I can’t just take it out. My blood needs hula,” she says.
Colton shares this love of the hula as “kumu,” which translates as “teacher” in the native Hawaiian language.
The name of Colton’s dance school is Hālau Hula O Nā Pua O Hawai’i Nei.
“Hālau Hula O Nā Pua O Hawai’i Nei means ‘Hula School of the Beautiful Flowers of Hawaii,'” explains Colton. “So we think of each of us as a flower from Hawaii, and hopefully everyone learns to be beautiful as we learn how to play the hula.”
The art form of hula dancing developed in ancient Hawaii. But in 1830, Queen Consort Ka’ahumanu, who had converted to Christianity, banned the cultural performance.
Then, in 1886, King David Kalākaua brought Hula back and said that Hula was the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.
“And now we’re celebrating his effort to launch Hula at the Merrie Monarch Festival in April,” says Colton.
The Merrie Monarch Festival is an annual event where schools known as “Halau” come to Hilo, Big Island, from around the world to compete and celebrate the ancient tradition.
Colton teaches two specific hula styles: kahiko and ‘auana. Everyone has different dance styles and attire.
“‘Hula kahiko’ is an ancient hula, we use a pahu drum for the beat and usually the chant is often written for either a king, queen, chief, gods or historical places,” she says. “The costumes are not too fancy. We make sure they fit the era they come from.”
“’Hula ‘auana’, on the other hand, is considered a modern hula. You can hear guitar, piano, ukulele. And the costumes come in different colors and fabrics.”
Colton teaches hula to both adults and children as young as five. Courses range from beginner to advanced.
Colton’s primary goal as a teacher is to ensure that her students learn hula not just as an artistic dance, but as an important part of Hawaiian culture; a way of passing legends and stories of ancient Hawaii to future generations.
Colton says that when most people think of hula, they think of swaying hips, floating arms, coconut brassieres, and green grass skirts.
She wants her students to break away from these stereotypes and focus on the authentic hula performance and dance techniques.
“I make sure her elbows are in the right place, and I think that’s a really big change from her image of the actual hula,” she says. “When practicing, storytelling is really important to make sure the moves land in the right place. It’s easy to change history with just a flick of the wrist.”
Colton starts beginners with hula ‘auana because the steps are much easier to learn.
Once they’re a little further along, she slowly introduces elements of Hula Kahiko.
“The beginner level is very small, partly because of COVID and partly because hula doesn’t jump and twirl like other dance forms,” she says. “So if the parents don’t have a connection to Hawaii, it’s a bit difficult to get the new dancers or the beginner’s class.”
Some students, like Natara Lopez, have a connection to Hawaii and have chosen Hālau Hula O Nā Pua O Hawai’i Nei specifically.
“My connection to Hawaii is that I was born and raised there. My husband’s Hawaiian lineage goes back a long way. So if they keep that aspect in the family and know their culture, they at least have some of it,” says Lopez.
Oregon is home to a growing number of ex-Hawaiians. More than 3,500 people moved to Oregon from Hawaii between 2014 and 2018, according to data from the Oregon Employment Department. Data from the 2020 census also shows that just under 1% of Oregon’s total population identifies as “Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders alone or in combination.”
For Lopez and Colton, Hālau Hula O Nā Pua O Hawai’i Nei offers a space to feel a little closer to home, even though the Hawaiian Islands are thousands of miles away.
Colton’s love of the hula began when she moved to Hawaii from Japan in the late 1990s. While attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa, she worked at the Polynesian Cultural Center, where she learned about the art and history of the hula and Native Hawaiian culture.
“I fell in love with the music and the emotions and all the hand movements and the more I learn the more I love the stories behind the songs and all the hard work that we have to put in to create something good together with the Hula sisters and Ohana to accomplish.”
She formally trained with renowned hula instructor Pekelo Day on Oahu and attended the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in 2007 and 2008.
Colton moved to Eugene with her family in 2007, wanting to find a community of hula dancers to be a part of. Luckily, Day opened a school in her new town of Na Pua o Hawaii Nei. Colton immediately followed suit.
She had no plans to become the school’s head teacher, but Day surprised her with an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“He just pulled me aside and said, ‘Do you want that Halau?’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ So he said, “Well, we’ve decided to move back to Hawaii. So if you want to take over, halau, that’s your halau.’”
Now, as Kumu, she continues to share the long, beautiful, and often challenging history of the hula art form.
“Hula tells the stories and of course music and singing with the two together. We can keep Hawaiian cultural history alive. Hula carries the legend and history. All the things that our ancestors passed down to us that we need to pass on to the next generation,” reflects Colton.