Ipu (Gourd/Percussion Instrument)

My mother, Kanoelani O’Connor with her ipu.

Waiting on a subway platform was part of my daily commute for almost 10 years. Expressing down to 14th Street from Times Square to pick up the local to Canal and Varick. Waiting on the platform, listening to the number 2 wiz by on its way to Brooklyn. The sound of train connecting with track. A New York City rhythm beckoning a more primal rhythm. The slap, tap, tap of the ipu beating out the footsteps of the first hula I ever learned – Kawika. The name chant for the Merrie Monarch, preserver of Hawaiian culture, King David Kalakaua. No earbuds. Just the sound of the trains riding the tracks bringing back familiar words:

Eia nō Kawika e e  (This is David)
O ka heke aʻo nā pua e e (The greatest of all flowers)

Ka uwila ma ka hikina e e (The lightening in the East)
Mālamalama Hawaiʻi e e (That brightens Hawaii)

Kuʻi e ka lono Pelekani e e (News reached England)
A lohe ke kuʻini ʻo Palani e e (Also heard by the French Queen)

Na wai e ka pua i luna e e (Who is this flower of high rank?)
Na Kapaʻakea he makua e e (Kapa’akea is his father)

Haʻina ʻia mai ka puana e e (Tell the refrain)
Kalani Kāwika he inoa e e (King David is his name)

As I remember this chant, my feet are torn between the desire to vamp to the right and vamp to the left, or just stand there in the 3rd position of ballet – that other dance form I was introduced to as a young girl. Four years of study – the first couple at the Washington School of Ballet where I got to see Jackie Kennedy pick up Caroline after class one afternoon – complete with Secret Service Detail.

Standing on that platform with the slap, tap, tap of the  ipu and Kawika in my ear,  I look down at my frozen feet and a truth is revealed. Like my feet, I am frozen at times  –  stuck between two cultures. Part of me wanting to go one way, part of me the other. At times like these, the only thing to do is fall down.

Ballet was taught in a mirror lined studio with hard wood floors. Clean lines, pristine and shiny. We learned to stand tall, head erect, tummy in, derriere tucked under. Pink tights, black leotards. Hair swept up in a bun. Elbows turned out. Movement in unison with the class. The teacher walking between us pointing out corrections. In a strange way we were making ourselves smaller, but taller. My favourite part was when we got to practice the arabesque – and this smallness and tallness somehow sprouted wings as we leapt into the air. This is what I loved about ballet. The flying. And when I saw my first professional ballet performance, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the leaping and soaring men. Transcending physical limitations seemed to be the essence of this dance.

Hula was taught in the living room. Mom kneeling with ipu in hand and rolled up newspaper at her side. Stand tall, okole out, shoulders straight, no bouncing, knees bent – but never bent as low as mom wanted. That’s what the newspaper was for. Swat on the back of the legs – “lower, lower, heels down.” I was not going to fly anywhere. This dance was not about leaping in the air, but feeling the earth beneath your feet. Feeling the power of the land, the ocean, the mountains, the flowing lava, the ancestors. Your arms may emulate the movements of graceful birds, but the feet remained married to the ground. Pounding the ground. Drawing energy from the ground.

In ballet, we imagined ourselves to be princesses.

In hula, it was the awesome face of Pele that beckoned.

Back on the platform, torn between the earth and sky, I feel myself falling, but my mother reaches out of my memory with her rolled newspaper and swats me , “lower, lower, heels down” and I find my footing because this hapa girl will not fall today.


Words to Kawika from: http://www.hulapreservation.org/

To hear this chant & hula performed by children: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tn-nehOGGgw Start at :52.



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