Hula Down the Hall

May 15, 2014 | by Brian Short

This is an article from the Spring 2014 issue of LSA Magazine. To read more stories like this, click here.

Nearly 40 students march to the front of the Angell Hall auditorium. The male students are dressed in black slacks, a red sash belt, and a white shirt. The female students are dressed in full red skirts and white tops. They file onto the stage at the front of the classroom, organize themselves into rows, elbowing each other jokingly, goofing around until the music starts. 

The music is rhythmic drumming and chant-like singing, performed by Amy Stillman, a two-time Grammy-winning songwriter and LSA professor of American Culture. Stillman sings and taps on the ipu, a Hawaiian gourd drum, while the students perform the hula, a traditional dance of native Hawaiian culture. The students move with bent knees and bare feet. Their hands are flat when face down, and cupped when turned up. As the capstone performance for the Approaches to American Culture course, it seems like the most fun end-of-semester project ever. 

But Stillman says getting students prepared for a performance like this is hard work. 

“They have to be exposed to a sufficient amount of movement vocabulary and develop an understanding of how movements are combined with poetic texts in order to complete the assignment,” Stillman says. 

“These are very bright, intelligent students who have navigated an educational system that challenges the intellect. It’s really cool when they realize that their movements are part and parcel of ways of knowing and experiencing the world.” 

In addition to getting students moving, Stillman says she also uses the opportunity to debunk the stereotype that “hula is some ha-ha shake-your-booty anything-goes free-for-all while wearing grass skirts and coconut bras.” 

Her proudest moment, she says, comes “when students start telling me about having to face down the stereotypes when friends and family learn that they’re in a course on hula.” Stillman says her students can now explain what hula is and, even more importantly, what it isn’t. “Mission accomplished,” she says.

 

To read more stories from LSA Magazine, click here.

 

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