Where Tradition Holds Sway

John Ka‘imikaua's Legacy Lives on through Moloka‘i's Homage to Hula

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Ka‘imikaua did that in many ways. He was a storyteller, able to mesmerize an audience with stories of Hawaiian culture and history, like those he told on daytime excursions to significant Moloka‘i places during the annual Ka Hula Piko. He was an instructor and kupuna (elder)-in-residence at Hawai‘i Pacific University at the time of his death. He was a composer whose 1977 album, From Deep Within, featured 15 of his songs.

Always he held to the traditions he learned from his teacher, who traced her hula genealogy back a thousand years. Ka‘imikaua believed that Moloka‘i was the birthplace of the hula, where legend says the family who brought hula to Hawai‘i formed a school to teach it to the ancients. And the dances he taught were those of the ancients, each with the gestures preserved as he learned them, and each with a story he would tell to explain the movement of the dance.

A hula “recorded a moment in time” Ka‘imikaua said. “The hula is like an ancient video,” and by repeating its sound and movement, “you’re pushing the past into the future.” The traditions he taught were of Moloka‘i, drawn from the same spiritual understanding as those of other islands, but “the way they expressed it was different. The thing that influenced the people was the environment, so people living in each ahupua‘a [land division] evolved their own traditions.”

In 2006, the theme for Ka Hula Piko was based on an ancient description of the style of dance that comes from Moloka‘i. “Dance with the spark of fire, dance with the fluidity of water. In life the two cannot combine,” Ka‘imikaua said, “but in the dance the essence of spark and fluidity is seen in the spirit of the dancers.” So the Moloka‘i style of dance has a distinctive style, swift moving but with an even fluidity, he said; “It’s not choppy.”

Those who attended Ka‘imikaua’s lectures saw that style demonstrated by the vigorous dancers of his halau, and at the day-long event at Papohaku Park on Moloka‘i’s west end, they also saw other hula styles from across the state and as far away as Japan.

Surely one of Hawai‘i’s great parks, Papohaku is a spread of level green ground under the shade of tall kiawe trees. Behind coastal dunes at one edge of the park stretches a long white beach. Beautiful but hazardous, Papohaku is dangerous to swimmers due to strong current and to walkers because of a devastating shore break. The locals who flock to Ka Hula Piko on the third Saturday of May generally stick to the shady park area.

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