By Julia Flynn Siler
SAN FRANCISCO — As the stage lights come on, dancers wearing black Afro wigs begin to move gracefully to an acoustic version of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” The audience roars with approval.
The troupe gyrating to this pop hit at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts is a far cry from the grass skirts of Waikiki. But it is one of the country’s leading hula dance companies, Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, founded by Patrick Makuakane, who moved from Honolulu to San Francisco in the early 1980s.
“I’m not crazy about the disco stuff,” says Molly Mayher, an Oahu resident who saw Mr. Makuakane’s troupe perform in San Francisco last month. “I prefer more traditional hula.”
As hula dancing becomes popular on the mainland, some complain the dance is swaying from its traditional roots. A recent competition between four troupes in San Mateo, Calif., featured high-energy routines with drumming, chanting and powerful lunges from the dancers. The winning act was the one that elicited the loudest whoops from the audience. The whole affair looked more like “American Idol” than a traditional hula competition, where the judges often are elderly teachers of the dance.
A performance by a hula group from Chino Hills, Calif., in a competition three years ago included what some members of the audience described as a “lap dance.” It provoked outraged online commentary from traditionalists, including the charge that some of the mainland performers were “pseudo-Hawaiians.”
One thing not in dispute is that hula is getting more popular. Mr. Makuakane’s company has a long waiting list for new dancers wishing to join. Hundreds of “halau” — or hula schools — have popped up in such places as Texas, New York and even Alaska.
Hula, which incorporates languid motions of the hands and arms with fluid hip movement is an ancient form of dance frowned upon by early Christian missionaries to Hawaii because they thought it lascivious. For Hawaiians, the dance remains one of the most powerful ties to native culture.
But being away from the islands allows Mr. Makuakane and other hula teachers, or “kumu hula,” to “look around and do what might not be possible to do yet in Hawaii,” says Amy Ku’uleialoha Stillman, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Michigan and founder of the Great Lakes Hula Academy.
Mr. Makuakane has won funding for his troupe from the San Francisco Art Commission, Hawaiian Airlines, the Zellerbach Family Foundation and Honolulu-based Alexander & Baldwin Foundation. He wishes the same were true in Hawaii, saying “my hula brethren back home are still holding car washes and garage sales.”
Hula’s growth has been fueled by the exodus of Hawaiians. More native Hawaiians now live on the mainland U.S. than in the islands, according to 2008 census data, with the highest concentrations in California.
At a recent hula event in Long Beach, Calif., 14 mainland troupes from Las Vegas, Los Angeles and elsewhere competed against each other. Hawaiian language judge Keala Ching, who travelled from his home on Hawaii’s Big Island to attend, fretted that the dancers didn’t seem to understand the meaning of the hula they were performing.
In questioning the mainland teachers, he told them: “If you’re going to call yourself a kumu hula, you have to ground yourself in the source, and the source is in Hawaii, not California.” Later he adds, “I’m not sure I’m going to be invited back!”
The organizers of the Long Beach competition didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“Sometimes I think people back home look down on us,” said Oakland, Calif.-based Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu, the kumu hula of the Academy of Hawaiian Arts, one of three mainland teachers featured in the 2003 PBS documentary “American Aloha.” “They’re mistaken. We’re not second-rate Hawaiians.”
Mr. Ho’omalu, an Oahu native who moved to California in 1979 to teach hula, performed two Hawaiian songs in the Disney film “Lilo and Stitch.” He calls himself the “renegade” of the hula world, because he is pushing hula in directions far beyond its traditions.
Three years ago, he decided to organize his own competition in California and invited three other mainland hula troupes to join his own. Instead of facing judges schooled in hula’s subtleties and traditions, they competed to win over a regular audience.
The troupe from Chino Hills, Calif., pushed the envelope the furthest, winning both whooping applause and some criticism from the audience by dancing to Prince’s “Kiss” and performing something some saw as close to a lap dance.
Mr. Ho’omalu says he confronted the Chino Hills troupe’s leader as soon as he left the stage. “That’s bull,” he told him. “The rules are keep it Hawaiian and keep it entertaining. That’s not Hawaiian enough!”
The troupe’s leader, Keoni Chang, now says the dance got a bit out of hand. “In thinking outside the box, we brought some girls up onto the stage who got a little enthusiastic” with the troupe’s male hula dancers, he recalls.
As for Internet posts calling the dancers pseudo-Hawaiian, Mr. Chang says he generally believes in sticking with tradition. The competition was an exception, he says. “I wouldn’t normally do that, otherwise my kumu would smack me in the head,” Mr. Chang says.
Mainland troupes are taking hula to unusual places. Twenty dancers from Mr. Makuakane’s troupe recently staged a “flash mob” hula at 38,000 feet on a flight to Honolulu. Dancers performed to a traditional Hawaiian song followed by Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
A few of Mr. Makuakane’s pieces have proved unpopular with some audience members. One is “Salva Mea,” a piece which graphically depicted an assault on native Hawaiian culture by Christian missionaries. Mr. Makuakane, who plays a black-robed priest, later heard that an elderly couple stood up and left during the dance during his most recent performance of the piece in Honolulu in February.
“Hawaii is the mother ship,” says Mr. Makuakane. But, “I would not be doing this kind of thing if I lived in the islands.”