Hawaii's Hula Takes On A Schoolgirl's Sway

When I finally got to Hawaii and saw a professional hula dancer perform "Little Brown Gal," I realized that Miss Ross, my third-grade teacher, had left out some key sections of the dance and had inserted some gestures of her own. Given the task set before her, it's remarkable that she taught us girls any kind of hula at all.

Miss Ross's first name was Ramona. She had been born and raised in Hawaii, and I wish I had asked her how such a charming and exotic person came to be teaching third grade in a Chicago suburb in 1953.

Miss Ross was tall and slender, with curly brown hair in a poodle cut, brown eyes, and rather large teeth, which gave her a big, warm smile. She was a gentle person who wore bright-red lipstick, and we adored her.

It was probably Mary Rothschild, always persuasive even at 9, who talked her into teaching us to hula. There must have been some objection, perhaps from Mr. Sternig, the principal, because negotiations dragged on from September until well after Christmas. Perhaps he was nervous about having a sensual native dance taught to impressionable young girls. Hawaii was not a state yet; so the lessons kit could have been construed as an un-American activity, and Senator McCarthy's home state of Wisconsin was just 40 miles north of us.

In late January, the final settlement was reached: Miss Ross could teach us to hula, but we would have to have our parents' permission in writing and we would have to learn it after school on our own time. Ten of us got permission and stayed after school, faithfully, all February and part of March learning three hulas, "Little Brown Gal," "We're Going to a Hooky Lau," and one I've forgotten except for the line I sang over and over until it dug a little furrow in my memory: "Where the humuhumunukunukuapu'a'a go swimming by."

It must have been a daunting task teaching 10 stolid little Midwestern girls in pigtails and cardigan sweaters to sway like palm trees to an island rhythm.

Miss Ross's mother sent real Hawaiian records from Honolulu, and we diligently practiced the basic hula step. Miss Ross counted it out for us: "All right girls, to the left first. Step, step, step, turn your foot. Now to the right, step, step, step, turn your foot."

She had us take off our brown lace-up oxfords to see if that would help. We weren't quite so loud in our thin white socks, but the beige linoleum floor was slippery and we had to concentrate hard not to slide into each other or bump the desks as we tried to imitate Miss Ross's grace and style.

She patiently explained all the foreign words and concepts to us: poi, hooky lau, aloha, wahine, ho'o' malimali, how to fish with a net from an outrigger canoe, what a humuhumunukunukuapu'a'a was. We tried to imagine palm trees and white silver sands as we listened to ukulele records, the bitter Midwestern winter swirling outside our classroom. We walked home in the biting cold dusk, humming hula music and imagining ourselves clad in graceful grass skirts that swayed and rustled. We practiced diligently at home in our rooms, waggling "step, step, step, turn; step, step, step, turn," somewhat hampered by a lack of grace, rhythm, and hip.

At last we were deemed ready to hula in public. We invited our mothers to come after school and see us perform. Miss Ross's mother sent real paper leis from Hawaii for us to wear with our plaid wool pleated skirts and white blouses so we would look as authentic as possible.

After school on the day of the performance, we hula dancers went off to the girls' room to put on our leis and comb our hair and giggle. We were stunned, when we returned to the classroom, to see our mothers gathered around a transformed Miss Ross, a barefoot Miss Ross wearing a vibrant red and white sarong, a piece of clothing we had never before imagined let alone seen before. She wore a magnificent purple-and-white orchid lei and, I distinctly remember, a flame-red hibiscus in her hair, a flower we never even knew existed. I had never seen a flower so large, so red, so dominant and flamboyant, although it was years before I learned what "flamboyant" meant. It seemed to generate heat even in a frigid Illinois winter and it lit up the classroom like the sun.

Our mothers, dressed in navy blue and gray wool, sat down at our desks and watched us lovingly as we formed two lines and concentrated our way through our hulas. We remembered to give the hula dancer's bow at the end of each dance (hands over our heads, right palm over left hand, bow slowly from the waist, pointing the right foot carefully in front of us) and we didn't bump into each other or slide too much. Our mothers applauded enthusiastically, Miss Ross did a short and beautiful hula, and then we had to give our leis back and go home.

The next day Miss Ross wore brown and looked like our familiar teacher and the 10 of us gradually stopped humming "Little Brown Gal" and worked on adding three-digit numbers and drawing colored maps of Illinois.

I hadn't thought about the "Little Brown Gal" until recently when I attended a tourist luau and a real hula dancer swung gracefully into our old familiar dance. I could suddenly see what Mr. Sternig must have worried about, a whole classroom of nine-year-old girls swinging their hips, smiling gently while making warm and inviting gestures to a compelling island beat. It's no wonder Miss Ross edited the dance a little.

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