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{The section below is excerpted from Chapter 7.}

Kanakolu: Thirty years as a hālau, and still kicking. (Or should that be kaholo-ing?)

“Those ‘uehe,” Kumu Patrick calls out from the stage at Daniel Webster Elementary School, referring to a step plié with a hip swish. “Please remember to keep the soles of your feet on the floor. I’ve been lax on that for the past decade or so.” His tone is slightly peeved.

The dancers in his performing group are running through their warm-up. The kumu holds out his right hand and taps his fingers, one by one with the left, as if playing “this little piggy went to market.” He begins: “I can tell who practiced [index finger], who didn’t [middle finger], who thinks they don’t need to practice [ring finger], who needs to practice [pinky]. I know, you say to yourself, ‘I never thought I had to practice’—and some of you don’t. But if you don’t practice and you come to hula, you’d better be fabulous.”

It’s a little past noon on a Sunday in February 2015, and Kumu Patrick is leading company practice in the “downtime” of the year, between the big shows that happen each October. This time they’re rehearsing Kanakolu, their thirtieth-anniversary show, which is a kind of “greatest hits” of Kumu Patrick’s dances: perennial crowd-pleasers and bits of choreography that have, over thirty years, become known as the hālau’s signature pieces.

(The critics sometimes differ from the crowds on such repertory shows. In 2007, Jennifer Dunning, of the New York Times, mused about whether “Mr. Makuakāne’s genial between-numbers banter has grown somewhat weary-sounding and too practiced” and whether the “novelty of seeing traditional-style Hawaiian dancing to music by Peggy Lee, Cyndi Lauper, and Tony Bennett” didn’t wear thin after a while. Though he doesn’t mention such feedback, Kumu Patrick is clearly bent on answering such critics with flawless dancing.)

Thirty-five of the company dancers are lined up in six rows, some in sweats, some in skirts with elastic casings that gather volumes of cotton around the hips. Many of them are professionals in fields as diverse as massage therapy and banking, and Sunday is their lone rehearsal day of the week. Which may explain Kumu’s particular teaching style. To make it perfect, to get everyone to perform together in a cohesive unit, you have to be exacting. “He’s much more forgiving of his dancers now,” says Makani daSilva, who started with him as a child and remembers him taping her hands to keep her fingers from splaying.

“He has his moods,” notes Debbie Garcia, who, as the alaka‘i, or assistant teacher, in the hālau, watches him from a close remove. “But, unlike many kumu, he teaches as many classes as he can. As kumu, he plays multiple roles: the nurturer, the artistic director, and the critic.”

Even as a benevolent patriarch, Kumu Patrick remains a perfectionist. These may be the crème de la crème of his school, but he still pulls out every stop, scolding, badgering, inspiring, making metaphors, and giving a little hula history to help his troupe grasp not just the moves but the meaning. And not just the meaning but the feeling.

Kumu Patrick is barefoot onstage, dressed in board shorts and a worn black T-shirt that says Jeet Kundo on the front, superimposed over an image of Bruce Lee, with red-and-white kanji characters on the back. He starts the warm-up the way he starts every class he teaches, and the way his kumu did, by taking dancers through each of the ten basic steps of hula. The exact number of steps is an issue of great debate among hula dancers, but he sticks to ten. In the approximate order in which he teaches them, they are kāholo, kāwelu, kā‘ō, hela, lele, ‘uehe, lele ‘uehe, ‘ami, ‘ami kūkū, and ‘ōniu. (Occasionally he adds one more, ‘ai kāwele, if it comes up in a dance, and there are still others that only the performing company learns.)

Kumu Patrick almost invariably follows the warm-up with his own version of “Kāwika,” the song praising King David Kalākaua that is a standard in all hula schools. After a few other standards, he turns to the numbers he is teaching his students for the next show. Because these are early rehearsals, he is not yet using his pahu drum. Instead, he stands behind a wooden lectern, banging it with a ferocity that would make even the Daniel Webster Elementary School principal cower.

He pounds out the beat for “Ho‘olono ‘Ia Aku Ho‘i Kaua‘i” (Kaua‘i Has Now Been Heard”), a mele composed in honor of King Kalākaua’s birthday jubilee on November 16, 1886. He has choreographed it as a slow, deliberate dance, with grand sweeps of the arms, subtle tilts here and there, and a few strong and swift motions to punctuate the others.

“That ‘āina,” he says, stopping and referring to the word for “land” and to a moment where the arms move quickly from pointing groundward (along with the entire torso) to hinging in front of the chest, parallel to the ground, as the torso unbends. “When you come up, it’s a nice, soft lift,” he barks, then softens. “Sometimes you imagine a lift, but your kino, your body, doesn’t actually lift. But if you imagine it, the lift is there. Think about cinnamon and the whiff of fragrance it gives. You don’t dump it into your cookies. It must be soft.”

He continues, launching into a sermonette he repeats over and over, not just in beginner classes but with these company veterans, too. “Old hula like this are very simple, not too many motions,” he begins. “The story is not in the hand—the story is in the mele. Because we lost the language, our hula movements became more dramatic.”

With those last words, he thrusts both arms into a dramatic V to demonstrate. “It’s not this, either”—he bends his elbows and makes his palms like a Balinese dancer. “Or this”—he kicks in a parody of a cancan girl.

Most songs from the past two centuries have a rhythmic refrain, a sort of caesura in between verses, called a , which allows the dancer a chance to go on autopilot for a few seconds—to collect the self and get ready for the next verse. The pā for “Ho‘olono,” however, is hardly a rest. The arm and leg extend to one side at a forty-five-degree angle, jutting out, tucking in, then jutting out again, while the torso bends to that side and the opposite arm extends upward. Oh, and the hands rotate forward and back, along the axis of the arm. Think triangle pose in yoga, only your hand isn’t resting on your shin, you don’t get to hold the pose, and your palms are rotating to the beat.

“In this pā, you are really working,” Kumu Patrick says, then plunges the knife in. “But you cannot look like you are working.”

Practice continues, and he keeps up a constant patter—partly to motivate his dancers, partly to give them tiny rests, partly to coax virility and femininity out of a group of people of varying body types, ages, and sexual preferences: “Gents, don’t get moloā,” he admonishes, using the word for “lazy.”

“Ladies, that’s an easy lean—not a tango move. Like this.” He tilts backward gently.

“Hiki nō?” In other words, “Got it?”

“Boys, what is that? Are you doing a man hop?”

He turns over the teaching of “If I Could Be with You,” a seductive female dance set to the song by Louis Armstrong, to three of his veteran dancers. They watch, critique, and coach the others. “Some of us—maybe I’m one—look like we are doing shoulder exercises,” says Janet Auwae-McCoy. “You’re not stretching your sore neck here! You are being sexy.”

“The feminine mystique,” he says admiringly, as he watches. “Some have it, some don’t.”

Eight months later, when Kanakolu is performed, the dance critic Allan Ulrich comments in his San Francisco Chronicle review on the results of such painstaking rehearsals. Perhaps Kumu Patrick’s singular accomplishment, he suggests, has been “to weld a group of committed part-time dancers into a troupe that moves with a singular impulse. When these 37 dancers fill the stage with impeccable swaying unisons and pelvic rotations, and delight us with a complex gestural language, you begin to wonder where amateur ends and professional begins.”

Celebrating three decades

…When he first presented hula mua like “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Kumu Patrick earned a bit of a reputation as a bad boy of hula. Some in the hula world considered him a showman, his style “too theatrical.” Since then, he has gained a few bona fides, not to mention packed performance halls and attention from mainland critics. And, of course, sanction from Aunti Mae Klein after his ‘ūniki, which gave him the hula equivalent of a gold medal and a brass ring, all wrapped in a blue sash.

Which isn’t to say his dances aren’t intentionally mischievous. Give him a subject, any subject, and he may well poke fun at it. Take the controversy over the birthplace of Hawai‘i’s first “native son” president, Barack Obama. That gave us “The Birth Certificate Hula,” which begins by teasing those who need a lesson in geography: “We’re a long way from Africa/ Honolulu doesn’t look like Kenya/ So you have to do . . ./ ‘The Birth Certificate Hula.’”

Or consider “The Hawaiian War Chant,” originally penned as a love song in the 1860s by Prince Leleiōhoku, the brother of Kalākaua. English lyrics were written in 1936 and the tune changed by Johnny Noble, the king of hapa-haole, literally “half-white,” music. This bastardized version of the prince’s song has been performed by Tommy Dorsey, the Muppets, and Hawai‘i’s first comedienne of hula, Hilo Hattie. In Kumu Patrick’s hands, it has become “Ta-Hu-Wa-Hu-Wai.” Women in slinky white and men in dress black do the Charleston, the Watusi, and anything in between. Their hula is pretty close to the movements performed by the most unknowing dancers, whose hips swish and hands flop without the slightest understanding or meaning. It’s a parody of a parody, by dancers who are able to code-switch with their hips.

All in the family

In the old days, a hālau was carried on within a literal family; today it thrives through a figurative one—and a surprisingly inclusive one, at that. Nā Lei Hulu has plenty of gay students, one transgender one, and many more straight ones. There are mothers and daughters in the same class, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. There is one three-generation family. And at practice on Sunday, mothers dance with their newborns in slings, toddlers sit on quilts and fiddle with iPads, and Kumu Patrick more than occasionally invites one to sit with him onstage, pointing out Mommy or Daddy in line.

One of those daddies is Jason Laskey, a half-Japanese, half-Irish-English-German-French senior investment manager at Wells Fargo. Laskey met his wife, Lola, in the performing group, and their two young sons come to many rehearsals. Laskey joined the hālau in 2001 and says that Kumu Patrick’s charisma is what has kept him coming back. “You just want to hear what he has to say,” Laskey adds. “He’s well read and articulate and finds ways to explain things to us.”

As a way of explaining what distinguishes Kumu Patrick as a teacher, and the particular challenges of teaching after the diaspora, Laskey mentions a legendary peak on O‘ahu’s windward coast that figures in “Pua ‘Āhihi,” a dance inherited from Aunti Maiki. “Sixty or seventy percent of his students have never seen Lanihuli,” Laskey points out, “but he finds a way to help them imagine the peak by regaling them with stories about it.”

There are no soloists, per se, in the company, but among the men, Ryan Fuimaono is hard to miss. He’s tall and half-Samoan and can’t keep the smile off his face when he’s dancing. After having performed with a Polynesian revue as a child in San Diego, at family gatherings, and then with various Bay Area groups, Fuimaono says he has found his place in Nā Lei Hulu. “I like how meticulous he is, in creating a vision but also in terms of our lines and spacing,” says Fuimaono about Kumu Patrick. “He’s a Virgo, I’m a Virgo,” he adds, half-jokingly.

A social worker for the City of San Francisco, Fuimaono appreciates the structure of the hālau, which, he says, allows for expressive freedom. “It’s comforting to be held by a group of people,” he says, “to be able to tap into certain emotions and feel safe in the group.” Like many members of the company, as well as the larger hālau, he mentions the sense of being part of a family. He grew up Samoan-style, with lots of siblings and cousins around, big family meetings, and a way of resolving family conflicts that reflected the chief system of the village back in Samoa as much as any American model. The sense of family merges with a sense of place and a feeling about that place: “I live in the Mission, we are based in San Francisco, and in dancing and chanting to honor San Francisco, we give back. It feels very Polynesian.”

In fact, the Hawaiian concept of ‘ohana—extended clan, chosen family, or important community—is a significant operating principle here. Classmates are “hula brothers and sisters.” The dancer who teaches featherwork is Uncle Herman.

Barbara “Aunty Bobbie” Mendes sits at a table in the back of the hall for every class, in a striking red-and-gold skirt. She collects the money, scolds you if you get out of line, and jumps up to join her favorite dances, especially the oldies. A combination of strong aunt, wise elder, and bookkeeper, she is an indispensable part of the functioning of the hālau.

This is, after all, extended family as arts organization. But even in a smaller and more old-school hālau, various members take on other prescribed roles to help the group. These positions were once called kōkua and today are called “social media manager,” “grantwriter,” and “costume designer.”

The traditions of hula demand respect for all elders, and certainly for the kumu. This translates into both loyalty and fealty to a sometimes arcane set of rules and behaviors that have been passed down for generations. Called “protocol,” these rules range from taking off your shoes as you enter class and greeting fellow students never with a handshake, always with a kiss, to trusting in a kumu’s every decision.

There can be an odd side to such traditions—and to belonging to a new family, even if a chosen one. Affection for the kumu can border on slavishness. Group dynamics can get dicey. Psychologists might note rampant projection. The ability to manage the expectations of 350 students is part of the job description of any kumu. But not all kumu are able to exhibit not just the “charisma” that Jason Laskey notes, but a kind of persuasiveness that would be called “leadership” in the MBA world. Kumu Patrick seems to have a special ability to find hidden talents in his motley group of students and former students—among them multimedia designers from Apple, former secretaries with wicked organizational skills, and business owners able to whip together a fund-raiser—and then convince them to become highly effective volunteers….

Staying tethered

Kumu Patrick has learned a lot about himself over the past thirty years. One thing that’s been an issue from the beginning—a common one for creative types—is how to blend his personal and his professional life. All his romantic partners have had to learn to “live with my mistress, which is hula,” he says, laughing. “I tell them at the beginning, ‘We’re in a canoe. You have to either pick up this paddle and help or get off.’”

Bob Davis was his first partner in San Francisco, and his way of paddling was to give Kumu Patrick critical feedback. In fact, Davis is largely responsible for the talk-story format Kumu uses in his shows. “He told me he didn’t feel included when he watched my early shows,” Kumu Patrick explains. “He wanted much more context, so I developed that format to bring the audience in.”

Since 2010, Kumu has been in a relationship with Rob Edwards, a real estate agent and former city planner. They share a loft apartment in Dogpatch, under the freeway, heavy on the black décor, the Apple devices, and the coconut juice in the fridge. Occasionally an orchid graces the long table in the kitchen area. And then there is the tongue-in-cheek kuahu, or altar, made of giant rubber Incredible Hulk hands always hung with dried lei.

Edwards is a fixture at Kumu’s shows, helping set up and break down dressing rooms, delivering flowers, and watching dress rehearsals. He often acts as a sounding board as well. “My students can’t tell me that something doesn’t work,” Kumu Patrick says. “I need a Michelle Obama—someone who can say, ‘What was that?’” He lets out a long, hearty laugh. Then he shares Edwards’ perspective on his role as a kumu: “Rob says he has never witnessed someone vacillate so wildly between unparalleled generosity and unbridled tyranny.”

Of course, Kumu Patrick also has sounding boards with whom he is not romantically involved. “Julie Mau has been with me since 1990,” he says. Mau is the general manager of the hālau, a San Francisco firefighter, and a daughter of Wai‘anae, on the rough leeward coast of O‘ahu. “She brings that Hawaiian local perspective,” he says.

But his closest creative partner, emotional supporter, performance soloist, and sometime muse is his own hula sister Shawna Alapa‘i. The two danced with The Brothers Cazimero, moved from Hawai‘i to the Bay Area, founded their respective hālau, and later traveled together to Hawaii for ‘ūniki training with Aunti Mae. “You need a peer to bounce things off of. She is the yin to my yang,” he says, using the Chinese metaphor but then returning to the Hawaiian notion of duality, of ever-present male and female principles. Then he chucks the language of philosophy and turns to Hawaiian Creole: “I can make prettier lei than she can, and she can kick my butt paddling a canoe.”

As time goes on, Kumu Patrick has begun to step back and allow new collaborators to step up. After all, his once-jet-black hair is now steely gray and he is preparing for a second hip surgery. Now that he is fifty-five, some new realities are hitting home. “I have a different level of energy,” he says. “But it causes me to be more present. I don’t want to miss anything my students are going through. And it means that when I illustrate a move, they better take notice, ’cause I’m only doing it once!”

He began giving high-level training to twenty students in 2002. It took loads of work on their part—research, preparing for class, learning a new hula style—and dogged perseverance, but some of those students have taken on new roles. Debbie Garcia teaches in Kumu Patrick’s absence and choreographs dances; John Shima and Debbie Tong play ipu and ‘ukulele in class and adopt a behind-the-scenes role outside it. Makani da Silva and Julie Mau teach the new children’s classes.

“The Sunday group now knows how to rehearse without me,” Kumu Patrick says. “Now that Debbie and John are able to lead the other classes, I am freed up to be creative in new ways. I can prepare for Merrie Monarch. I can take my kumu hat off and put my student hat back on, taking classes again. I can go to LA to pick fabrics for the dresses for this next show.”

“In the old days, I would only leave hula here for a hula reason. Now I can call in sick. Or have a guilt-free vacation.”

It takes prodding, though, to get him to admit to nonhula diversions. “A good portion of my life outside hula is spent at the gym,” he says. “Inside my body is a fat Hawaiian boy screaming to get out, so I keep going to the gym and only let him out on special occasions.” But he does admit to taking time to see modern dance, ballet, and theater. In the spring of 2016, he was trying to score tickets to Hamilton in New York City.

…While Kumu Patrick tries to stay on top of mainland culture, he says it is even more important for him to stay bound to Hawaii, to “the foundation.” He goes back to the island as often as possible and brings Hawaiian kumu, scholars, musicians, and craftsmen to San Francisco to offer his students workshops and special programs. (The ethnomusicologist Amy K. Stillman notes that this penchant for collaboration is a hallmark of California hālau.)

In 2014, Kumu Patrick achieved a hālau first: he took a four-month sabbatical in Honolulu, returning to San Francisco just once a month to check on his classes. He gave himself a relatively light choreography load by staging, as with his annual October show, a hō‘ike nui, or “grand recital,” featuring a total of two hundred dancers from all but his most beginner class. (Members of the performing group were able to take a rest and play just a backstage role.)

In their heterodox totality, they gave a proud image of the hālau’s diversity and size.

They danced kahiko; they danced ‘auana. They danced sacred dances; they danced sassy dances. The aunties danced; the keiki danced. And even the kumu danced.

At the end of the first half, a collection of men from different classes danced “Noho Paipai,” the rocking-chair hula. Kāne (men) were scattered throughout different classes, vastly outnumbered by women. “It was an unusual chance to dance together, just kāne,” says one of them, Daniel “Pono” Sternburgh, who speaks Hawaiian and sprinkles his sentences with Hawaiian words, including Kū, the Hawaiian equivalent of the Roman Mars or the Greek Ares. “Kumu surprised us all by jumping in. What a privilege! Very few kumu dance with their students. There was such Kū energy—a real ‘man’ moment.”