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HULA FOR HEALTH: Hawaiian Dancing for Fitness

At most dance for fitness classes, loud, upbeat music rocks the room as the dancers perform high energy moves.  But at Friendship Centers, the gentle island melodies of hula are motivating older adults to exercise and get healthy.

“Hula is an interpretive form of dance,” says Nancy O’Brien as she sways to the music in a Hawaiian shirt and a green flower skirt.  “Each dance and song tells a story. This song is called ‘Ka uluwehi o ke kai and is about gathering seaweed.”

O’Brien and her group, the Aloha Nui Hula Dancers, demonstrate one of the dances they are currently working on in their intermediate Hula class at Friendship Centers, which is offered on Wednesdays from noon to 1:00 in the Sarasota Activity Center.

Hula dancing is a complex art form, and there are many hand motions used to represent the words in a song or chant. For example, hand movements can signify aspects of nature, such as the swaying of a tree in the breeze or a wave in the ocean, or a feeling or emotion, such as fondness or yearning.

O’Brien visited Hawaii as a teenager, saw the dancers, and was hooked.  She began hula dancing about 15 years ago in Colorado, attending a “hālau,” or school for traditional Hawaiian language, culture, and dance. The Aloha Nui Hula Dancers have been holding classes at Friendship Centers for more than 15 years and are part of a larger community of hula dancers in Southwest Florida.

Sharon Marshall, who has been dancing hula for more than 30 years and is also a ballroom dancer, has discovered other benefits of the class.

“Dance really improves your memory, balance and coordination,” she said.  “You have to remember where your hands and feet go, what movements come next, and be able to put it all together. Following the story and a language you don’t know is challenging too.  Each class is building on what we’ve learned.”

Hula has other health benefits as well, such as weight loss and boosting energy. With its slow and relaxing nature, hula is a low to medium impact exercise, easing the strain on the joints. Dancing is also good for your abs, back and hips and helps tone and strengthen your legs.

The intermediate class at Friendship Centers generally draws about 9-10 participants, but the group would love to start offering a class for beginners too.

“Most beginner dancers are surprised that it’s harder to do hula than you think it would be,” said Barb Winsten, who teaches the class at Friendship Centers. “Hula is a whole-body workout that keeps you on your toes. But it’s a great way to make friends and be a part of a community.”

The Aloha Nui Hula Dancers perform up to 15 times each year at luaus for assisted living facilities, charity events, and senior centers, including the Friendship Centers’ luaus in Sarasota and Venice.

Most of the group have been to Hawaii several times, and others are planning trips in the near future, but all own lots of Hawaiian outfits and appreciate the culture of the islands.

“Hawaiian dance is so pretty, it’s about telling a story with your hands,” said Anne Stein, a dancer in the group. “The music is beautiful, the movements are graceful, you get to learn about and appreciate another culture, and if you travel you’ll never meet a stranger. Who doesn’t love a hula dancer?”

For more information about the hula class, contact Marilyn Belvoix at ___________.

Fun Facts

Hula is a Polynesian dance form accompanied by chant (oli) or song (mele). It was developed in the Hawaiian Islands by the Polynesians who originally settled there. The hula dramatizes or portrays the words of the oli or mele in a visual dance form.

There are other related dances that come from other Polynesian islands such as TahitiThe Cook IslandsSamoaTonga and New Zealand; however, the hula is unique to the Hawaiian Islands.

Various instruments and props are incorporated into Hawaiian dancing, and The Aloha Nui Hula Dancers use many of them in their class.  These include:

  • Ipu—single gourd drum
  • Ipu heke—double gourd drum
  • Pahu—sharkskin covered drum; considered sacred
  • Puniu—small knee drum made of a coconut shell with fish skin (kala) cover
  • ʻIliʻili—water-worn lava stone used as castanets
  • ʻUlīʻulī—feathered gourd rattles (also ʻulili)
  • Pūʻili—split bamboo sticks
  • Kālaʻau—rhythm sticks