Hula class

Members of the intermediate class of the Annapolis Hula class rehearse at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / June 27, 2012)

The Annapolis-area residents sing, dance and chant with near-flawless rhythm and cadence, displaying traditions and cultures from America's only island state.

They are members of one of the hula classes for adults offered at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts through mid-August, and they serve notice that the Hawaiian dance is more than swiveling hips in grass skirts.

"There are a lot of misconceptions on the mainland about what real hula is," said class instructor Julia Gibb, an Annapolis resident of Portuguese and Ukrainian descent whose grandmother and mother were born in Hawaii. Her ancestors were among many who migrated to Hawaii to work in the country's sugar cane fields, and they embraced aspects of Hawaiian culture that they passed down to generations.

Like Gibb, many of those who sign up for the class have roots in Hawaii, including Carlson Woodside from Kent Island, who lived on the island when her father was in the Navy.

"I already knew what authentic hula was. My mother danced when we lived in Hawaii," said Woodside, 60. "But what I didn't realize [before taking the class] is what a great mental exercise it is. As we age, that is what I'm appreciating."

Gibb began teaching the class about six years ago, taking over from a Hawaiian-born resident who launched it a year earlier. Upon signing up for the class, she caught on quickly to the dances as she recalled the lessons her grandmother and aunts have her. She visits Hawaii each year for lessons on the dance from a teacher, or kumu, with hopes of becoming a master dancer.

"Hula really started as a sacred dance, and my understanding is that it wasn't something that just anyone did. It was a special thing to be a dancer," said Gibb, 40. "Both men and women danced. And it was a way to honor chiefs and, later on, kings and their spiritual beliefs.

"Some of the dances tell stories about the gods and goddesses and about special beloved places on the island," Gibb added. "It has been called the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people because it has been so important in passing on traditions. A lot of people who try the class are surprised at how much discipline there is, that there's protocol and that there are rules."

Up to a dozen adults sign up for Gibb's classes, "Introduction to Hula" and "Intermediate Hula." The introductory class involves exploring hula and learning chants and songs in Hawaiian. The intermediate class includes learning further aspects of ancient and modern hula.

The students stage performances at many Annapolis-area retirement homes as well as other local events.

The group learns such dance steps as the kaholo, which involves synchronized steps and swaying, and the 'uehe, stepping with a lift of the feet and knees. They engage in call-and-response chants as Gibb plays a gourd rattle. They often dance with bamboo rattles as well.

Carol Steever of Severna Park, who was born and raised in Hawaii and took up hula as a child, said she signed up after she saw members of the class perform.

"One of the misconceptions I had when I joined was that this was going to be a regular hula class, and we would come to class and dance," said Steever, 59." I didn't expect the strong camaraderie, and [it] really turned out to be not only a physical but a mind and spiritual experience."

Woodside said she teaches the dance steps to her grandchildren. "They love it," she said. "Kids are so into dancing nowadays. It's just a new way of dancing as opposed to all the fast stuff. It's teaching them to be more disciplined with their footwork."

Hula is believed to have qualities that some say can be used as a form of self-healing or meditation. Gibb says her dream is to explore how to take hula to those who desire "physical and spiritual healing."

"One of the things that I really like about this is that there is an emphasis on being a part of something that's bigger that you," said Gibb. "I am thinking about expanding it not only to people who want to take it for fun but people who just need something in their lives. It's such a wonderful discipline."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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