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It’s My Culture Too

Maria McAlister-Young | mmcalisteryoung19@dtechhs.org

I’ve been dancing hula for as long as I can remember. And for as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like an imposter. I don’t look “Hawaiian”, I don’t dance as well as those with Polynesian blood, and I certainly can’t understand the language of the songs we dance to.

If you look at me, it’s not surprising I’m 50 percent white, 50 percent Chinese and 0 percent Hawaiian. I don’t look like the rest of my hula sisters. Though they never said anything about it, it’s a little disconcerting looking different from everybody else in a dance that celebrates unity. I keep dancing, however, because my dad, his parents, their parents, and everyone on that side of my family going back several generations grew up in Hawaii. It’s my second home, and dancing helps me feel connected to it.

One of my favorite things about hula is that the group moves as one to tell a story older than many civilizations. These stories are from ancient Hawaiians, passed down through the generations, as often hula was the only thing that preserved the traditions and culture. And it’s the dancers’ job to share the story with the audience. It’s our gift to the audience.

But how am I supposed to dance a representation of a song that I can’t understand? I’ve asked myself constantly why I ever thought I was good enough to compete in something I can’t comprehend, something so important and revered I worry I can’t do it justice.   

So you can understand my hesitation when, a couple years ago, one of my hula sisters asked me to do the upcoming competition with her. She had been competing since she was around seven, and so had everyone on the competition team. It was terrifying, saying yes.

There was a lot of work to be done. Competition dancers had extra practices, gave up weekends to knot leaves into skirts and adornments, and had to work much harder in class in order to be at the same level as competing groups in Hawaii.

I didn’t mind the extra work, however. Being a part of something, finally feeling like part of a group, made it all worth it. Before, I didn’t feel like I had that close connection with teammates that all my school friends would tell me they had, with their sports teammates or music friends. Though I fit in at school, I didn’t have anything that belonged only to me. I wanted something that I loved so much it became a part of me.

We laughed, joked, cried, and bled together.

Hula competition became that thing. I bonded with the competition line, our group that dances together. We laughed, joked, cried, and bled together. For most of our competitions, we dance in grass skirts we need to make. Usually, many of us end up with skinned knuckles and bleeding fingers by the time we were done tying leaves onto the string. In November of 2015, I danced in my first competition in Pleasanton, California. Even though we didn’t place that year, it was still a win in my book. I was part of something. We kept competing, getting better and better until last year, when we placed second at Ia O’e, the biggest competition outside Hawaii. As a result, I was invited to join the Merrie Monarch competition team for the 2019 season. It’s common to hear the sentence “you’re not a hula dancer until you’ve danced on the Merrie Monarch stage.” Competing in Merrie Monarch is like the Superbowl or the World Series. It’s the end goal for all hula dancers.

McAlister-Young (right) formed a close bond with her dance group, as well as the Hawaiian Culture

To compete in Merrie Monarch, all the competition dancers need to understand the story we were telling, know exactly where it came from, and be willing to travel to Hawaii often, most of the time just for a weekend. We started learning more about Hawaiian culture and where the dance came from. On our first trip as a full line, we visited Maui and the Big Island. While in Hilo, we started clearing out an acre worth of forest to start creating the first cultural garden for hula dancers. It would have lava rock paths with native plants and flowers that dancers would wear in competitions. We also learned more about the goddesses of Hawaiian mythology.

But the competition and all the ensuing trips would be expensive and time consuming; the competition fees alone were over 1,000 dollars, and that didn’t include flight costs, lodging in Hawaii, or food. It was a huge commitment, especially going into my senior year of high school. There was no way I could say no, though; I would find a way to make it possible.

Fast forward to earlier this year, when my first assignment in an online sociology class was to talk about your race and culture. My father grew up in Hawaii, and though it is not a part of my blood, we’ve visited family there so often it’s become a bigger part of me than either of the races I actually am. I began to think a lot about cultural appropriation after this assignment. Was I stealing Hawaiian culture? Wasn’t I just participating in competitions to satisfy some part of me that just needed to belong to something? Isn’t that the definition of appropriation – to take something from a culture that is not your own just because you like it? I needed hula, but it began to feel like I would never feel comfortable dancing something that wasn’t from my culture.

I needed hula, but it began to feel like I would never feel comfortable dancing something that wasn’t from my culture.

It took me a long time to realize that it didn’t matter what race I was. It didn’t matter that I felt like an outsider. Culture is not the same as race. It’s the traditions, values, and heritage that are passed down from generation from generation, not your physical characteristics. To be a part of a culture, you need to learn about it’s past, the way people think, act, and talk. Hula is an amazing dance. It kept a culture alive by telling their stories generation after generation.

But it’s also an art form that people may want to learn. People need to stop judging others based on their looks, and encourage others to learn about their culture and their art. If you want to learn hula, I say go for it. Just make sure you do it with the respect the dance deserves. Take classes from a real Hālau. Do your research on the language and songs you dance to. Like me, you will probably struggle to fit in for a long time, but now I can’t imagine my life without the connections and history hula brings.

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