Like the other students, Hualani Ching discovered her hula dancing instructor Cherry Nutting through a Fairfax County Park Authority class. She took it because missed her Hawaiian mother who had died recently.
But the class proved to be more than just learning how to shake her hips. The class' instructor or kumu hula, Cherry Pualani Nutting, was so enthusiastic about sharing Hawaii culture and language through the dance class that the Springfield resident decided to be a student of Nutting's halau, or dance school, in Fairfax.
"We have such a wonderful group of girls and we are ohana, a family," Ching, 70, said.
The Fairfax halau was the only mainland group to compete and win a standing at the Ka Hula Le'a Invitational Hula Festival held last August in Hawaii. Thirteen dancers from the area and their 47 supporters flew to the islands to perform in the dance competition, where they were tested in performance, rehearsal, costume, music and language skills.
Yet while the group, called Ke Anuenue Punahele or "Favorite Rainbow," enjoyed receiving the accolades at the competition in Hawaii, they joined the halau because of the community Nutting fosters, as well as the lessons they receive on Hawaiian dance, society and culture.
"It just really fed my spirit. I now have a Hawaiian family in Virginia," said Kamala Cooper of Vienna, who had grown up in Hawaii.
IN HULA DANCING, the performer tells stories through movement and song. While hula dancing conjures up images of dancing girls in grass skirts for most people, the dancers at Nutting's halau say the tradition is much more rich.
"A lot of people think it's pure entertainment," Nutting said.
According to Nutting, because Hawaiian language wasn't written until the late 18th century, chants and songs were used to preserve the knowledge and history of the Hawaiian islands. Historically, only men performed hula dancing, because women weren't allowed in the king's court. Women could dance for other women, but only outside of the court.
The competitions and festivals aim to keep Hawaiian culture and history alive. In the August festival, Ke Anuenue Punahele performed five meles, or Hawaiian songs. They won second place in the child division of the August festival, and they also competed at the ages 14 to 30 level, and the ages 30 and up level. Kaamila Mohammed, a 14-year-old student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology won an award for her solo performance of a modern dance, Kaulana o Kawaihae.
The group was also judged by the research they conducted in preparation of the festival, as well as the crafts they made for the dances.
Hula dancing "was just so much more fascinating than I realized," said Leilani Kochie of Alexandria, who had started taking lessons from Nutting since March to prepare for her wedding reception.
Besides the competition, the halau also visited several ancient and religious sites in Hawaii, such as Pu’ukohola Heiau, Hulihe’e Palace and Honaunau Park, performing the corresponding prayers and dances for each site visited.
“Kumu shares her love of Hawaii, and that is the difference with this halau,” Cooper said.
Although proud of placing in a division as a mainland group, they got there only through hard work. Ke Anuenue Punahele, whose membership stands around 15 dancers, meets three to four times each week. With each rehearsal, the dancers start out with warming up their joints: the feet and the ankles, wrists and hands, and leg stretches. As they rotate the joint, they count one to ten in Hawaiian, ekahi, elua, ekolu, one, two, three. Nutting teaches them Hawaiian because the island groups complain that the mainland groups don't know the language.
THEN THE DANCERS go through the basic movements. While hula dancing has 16 to 20 movements, Tahitian dancing, which uses grass skirts, has only six movements, mostly incorporating the hips. Perfecting the movements so that they become second nature is Nutting’s goal for her students. She is known among them for administering the “3 o’clock test” during hula festivals The test involves waking a student up in the middle of the night to perform a dance.
"You follow your hands wherever you're going because it's continuous movement," said Nutting, correcting one of the dancers.
During rehearsal breaktime, the group shares what's going on with each others' lives. The soothing Hawaiian music, as well as Nutting's welcoming attitude, make conversation easy.
“Life here on the mainland is very stressful,” Nutting said. “In Hawaii, we have this philosophy, we’ll get it done and we’ll do it well, but we’ll get it done on our time.”