As residents of our beautiful state of Connecticut, we enjoy New England life mightily, but that doesn’t mean we don’t long for a break from the mercurial weather and do-it-yourself lifestyle that is part of our proud culture here.
In fact, during certain times of year, we may often find ourselves fantasizing about warm weather destinations. Suppress it as we may, who can resist the notion of an escape from all that leaf blowing, snow shovelling, and skidding on ice?
Believe it or not, certain unique New Englanders have found their great escape from routine in the embrace of Polynesian dancing.
Island state of mind
Whether a novice dancer or a professional, while engaging in Polynesian dance, one is privy to certain thought processes born from life on some of the most beautiful islands in the world. Within the vast lasso among Easter Island (native name: Rapa Nui), New Zealand (Aotearoa), Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, and Hawaii, Polynesians have long sustained a breadth of different cultures, languages, dances, cosmologies, and ways of life.
Through different artistic methods, Polynesians tell of creation and history, and share reverence for their community. It is important to keep in mind that the ancient Polynesians originally came to settle there from thousands of miles over the seas, using just the stars and the currents to navigate from other islands. They were brave, determined, proud people with survival skills that allowed for voyages across vast tracts of wild ocean. The dances born from these Indigenous peoples reflect their ancestral vitality and joy for life. The sheer mystical beauty of their islands and the reverence for their history has become infused within their dance.
And the dance has migrated to the Nutmeg State, too.
Kaiholunuie Polynesian Dance Company, based in Wallingford, was founded in 2004 by Kekai (Kaye) Colello, the company’s artistic director, who has more than 45 years of Polynesian dance experience. An English teacher by day, Colello began to teach Polynesian dance out of her home as she completed graduate school, only wanting to pass on the traditions of her Hula lineage that had been bequeathed to her since childhood.
The name Kaiholunuie came to Colello in a dream. The word “kai” – also embedded in her own given first name – means “ocean.” To her, it symbolizes the esteemed ocean adjacent to the land on which she played as a child. For Colello, the Pacific Ocean is a grand and mysterious place that ties the peoples of Oceania together.
At Kaiholunuie, students learn Hula – an art form intrinsic to self-expression on the islands of Hawaii and a sacred, physical expression of Hawaiian history, genealogies, and stories that have both evolved and remained constant throughout time. It is a dance inextricably tied to the “Aloha,” a deep, emotional word that has no English equivalent, but rather encompasses an expanse of meanings surrounding love, compassion, humility, and life. It is a testament to Indigenous resiliency, tenacity, and strength.
Colello and her fellow instructors also teach dances from throughout Polynesia, welcoming newcomers of all backgrounds to learn and participate.
But the studio teaches more than dance, as students often engage in workshops where they learn the skills needed to assemble their own garments, create handmade leis used in costuming, craft Pasifika musical instruments, and engage in academic lessons on topics such as history.
Why is this important? As New Englander Henry David Thoreau once said, “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” But it seems even more accurate to state: “In wildness and culture is the preservation of the world.” If we should lose such places and ancient customs that give life meaning, we stand on a tragic precipice where we no longer comprehend our meaningful place in existence. So, it might not be all that surprising that New Englanders who can appreciate that sentiment would embrace a Polynesian dance company thousands of miles from Oceania.
Colello, as lead instructor at Kaiholunuie, is respectfully known to all her students as “Aunty Kaye.” She is a fount of knowledge pertaining to cultures that spawned a myriad of dance styles, each one significant to the islands from whence they come.
Her particular love of Hula since youth always remained deep in her heart like an ember, reminding her of all the life lessons she had learned from her Kumu Hula (or master Hula teacher). Those lessons are grace, humbleness, light, and most importantly, Aloha. Today, Hula is once again central in her life, and the joy of sharing it with others is something she is so grateful for.
Aunty Kaye imparts her own handcrafted, encyclopaedic information to her students, who hang upon every word she utters. She is such a talent that often she brings her audiences to tears just from watching her expressive “lovely Hula hands.”
The dances of Polynesia are as various as the countless scores of islands themselves. Hand movements tell a story of the song, a complex language that becomes second nature to those who study the art form. Gestures may depict various subjects described in a song: for example, movement of the ocean, swimming fish, falling rain, emotions of love and attraction, colorful flowers, and beautiful birds.
Tahitian dance for women is notoriously fast and can be extremely difficult to master. Simply put, the women’s dances of Tahiti are an ebullient, joyful, jaw-dropping performance that can only be quantified as a highly respectable celebration of culture. The lilting, lyrical Hawaiian Hula is perhaps best known to those of us on the mainland; it is an expression of beauty in which every poetic movement concurrently illustrates a word, a thought, and a feeling.
You might ask, why would any New Englander want to participate in Polynesian dancing? What relevance could this form of dance possibly have to a Connecticut resident?
Traditional dance is replete with meaning and allows the participant to focus on artistic movements that resonate within the body – gestures that have lasted for centuries. At Aunty Kaye’s dance studio, the sacred magic of Oceania is always waiting for her students – real and tangible.
Kaiholunuie dancers perform all over New England – at festivals, schools, private parties and public events – proffering many Polynesian numbers to entertain their audiences, just as they might at a celebration on the Big Island.
Colello says in the beginning, she had no plans to create a dance company. She simply wanted to bring people together and teach them to dance. However, over the years, through word of mouth and love of the dance, her classes grew into a thriving business. Her studio is now home to a blossoming multicultural group of adults, young people, and keiki (children) who join each other as extended family to learn the different forms of Polynesian dance.
She hopes her students will become more globally aware of the many beautiful cultures, traditions, values, and belief systems that makes the world an invaluable classroom to explore.
Overcoming Historical Struggles
It was the 19th century missionaries from New England who were squarely responsible for putting a stop to this art of dance, which shocked and offended them.
Henry Opukaha’ia was a young merchant sailor from Hawaii who landed in a missionary school based in Cornwall, Connecticut. He converted to Christianity and told students of the faraway land where people lived so differently. Inspired by his faith, he and others made plans to go on a mission back to Hawaii in order to convert his Hawaiian community, but he died in his mid-20s, before he could accomplish his goal.
Others from his coterie, who later lived in Massachusetts, sailed to Hawaii in his stead. Hundreds of whaling vessels based in Nantucket and New Bedford, Massachusetts, also made the long trip to Hawaii around Cape Horn into the Pacific annually. Sailors accidentally brought unfamiliar diseases to Hawaii, tragically causing some Indigenous populations to plummet by nearly 90 percent.
As the strict missionaries settled the islands and began to colonize, they were determined to blot out certain aspects of the culture that seemed at cross-purposes with their own determination to convert Indigenous people to their way of thinking. At the time, they believed Hula was far too rife with alluring movements that horrified them and seemed despicable. Over the years following, Hula nearly died out as a result.
But in time, Hula experienced a revival and Hawaiian language gradually resurfaced in education. Learning Hawaiian is popular at the University of Hawaii and is now given its due as a true reaffirmation of joy. This cultural renaissance speaks truth to the mind and heart.
Many people don’t realize that Hawaii was once a great Kingdom, united by brave chiefs who fought tooth and nail to unite the warring tribes that immigrated there on double-hulled canoes from thousands of miles away. Before the missionaries and colonization, Hawaiians were living in a paradise free of disease, with plentiful food and a proud artistic heritage.
Hawaii’s last queen, Liliu’okalani, was overthrown by aggressive American businessmen supported by the U.S. military who happened to be there at the time. Subsequently, the rights of the local Hawaiian populace were taken away.
Liliu’okalani wrote famous anthems and songs that became a part of the lexicon used in ceremonies and in modern Hula. This talented leader was jailed in her own home and subsequently tried in Honolulu for treason against the new regime that had stolen her country from her. Washington, D.C. did nothing to support the overthrown queen. The Hawaiians were ill-treated and stripped of their lands. Ongoing work of activists, educators, and scholars has kept the last queen’s quest to recognize the monarchy alive.
New England missionaries from the early 19th century spawned their own breed of cancel culture, putting the kibosh on all things Hula. So it seems only fitting that here in Connecticut, the art of Hula is being practiced, preserved, and given the respect it deserves.
Even the Hawaiian language is practiced at the Kaiholunuie studio. Colello’s outreach preserves what is precious, sharing the complexities of Hula lovingly with others, even those with no connection to Polynesian ethnicity.
As Colello has often said: “There is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.” No one walks that line more gracefully than she does.
Perhaps best of all, Hula allows her students to feel empowerment through movements, centuries old. Undeniably, there is a newfound, burgeoning awareness of how special and necessary are the customs of Indigenous peoples throughout the world.
Kaiholunuie steadfastly maintains a commitment to authenticity as its instructors strive to be inclusive to all those who seek deeper knowledge of Polynesian culture and share in Aloha.
For more information about classes or performance bookings, visit Kaiholunuie.com.
Photos by Eye on the World Photography