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Women Who Inspire: Mahealani Uchiyama

As a forty-something woman from Hawaii whose current hula experience sadly amounts to zilch, the notion of only now starting to learn the dance seemed like a far-off notion — something I wish I had done in my youth.

Until I met Mahealani Uchiyama, 58, a hula master who isn’t even originally from the Islands and therefore bereft of the luxury of being born into this particular dance tradition (although she is well-versed in African dance traditions). But despite her divergent ethnicity (African-American) and place of origin (Washington, D.C.), hula, which she began studying at the University of Hawaii in the late 1970s, would prevail, as many deeply felt pursuits often do.

Lucky for me, her award-winning hālau (hula school), Ka Ua Tuahine, which practices at her eponymous international dance center in Berkeley, California, accepts new students every Tuesday. Historically shy, I’m usually reticent of new experiences (especially where choreography is involved), but Uchiyama’s strong and wise perspective has been a revelation.

“It’s never too late for hula,” she tells me. Here, she reveals, among other well-seasoned insights, how hula’s significance in her life has changed over the decades and about a small rebellious action that helps her honor her age. — Leilani Marie Labong


Outwardly, you aren’t the typical kumu hula (hula teacher). What have you had to overcome to pursue this path?

I come from a background where you just get out there and work hard. For reasons that I’m not quite sure how to explain, what I really wanted to be was involved in this tradition of Hawaiian hula. I think in a lot of ways it manifested in me that same connection to spirit and community and the land that is also found in African spiritual traditions. While I lived in Hawaii in the 1970s, there weren’t that many people who looked like me unless they were from a military family or on the University of Hawaii basketball team. So I encountered a lot of doubt and experienced a lot of isolation. But I just wanted to dance. I find that we’re still locked in this binary world view where you can’t be one kind of person and do something that another kind of person usually does. It was difficult to find people who took me seriously as a teacher and as an artist, but I did find those people when I moved to California in 1982.

This summer, you re-released your 1999 book, The Haumāna Hula Handbook for Students of Hawaiian Dance. Why did you write it?

To dispel the notion that the hula is a simple, one-dimensional dance form that is easy to learn. There are differences in cultural expressions from one Polynesian island to another (and, for the record, hula is not Tahitian dance). I hope that visitors to Hawai’i will not see it as a simple vacation destination and instead take the time to see and appreciate the history of the islands and the wisdom of its people.

Has the meaning of hula changed for you over the last 30 years?

In my 20s, it was a beautiful way of moving through the world that connected me to Hawai’i, a place I felt very touched by and wanted to learn more about. In my 50s, hula feels much more like a spiritual practice. I’ve come to realize that, for me, it’s not so much about the technique anymore as it is about the other teachings of the tradition, about the connection to the land, the connection to the sky, and the willingness to see yourself as part of those things, instead of having domain over all of it. Hula is about community. And when I say community, I’m not just talking about people. I’m talking about the four-legged, the six-legged, the winged, the leafy, the stars, the ocean …

As a dancer, in what ways are you embracing age?

The best way to deal with age is to embrace it. By way of comparison, I was a much stronger dancer in my 40s than I was in my 30s. And now, the dancing that I teach is no less athletic, even though I’m not on the floor doing some of the more difficult steps anymore. I’m recovering from a torn meniscus right now that is making it really challenging for me to do a lot of the kind of dancing I would normally do. I can’t go down to the floor and back up again like I used to, but it’s OK. The things that I’ve given up in my physical technique I’ve more than gained in my spiritual grounding.

Do you have different expectations of the older and younger dancers in your hālau?

I have dancers in my company who are my age and some who are 20 years older, and they’re all still doing hula competitions with me. Within reason, I expect everyone to dance strong. I push them to their limits. I don’t water things down just because they’re of a certain age. As we get older, we need to trust in our strength as women.

Knowing this, we can do more than we ever thought we could. I see this proven daily at my studio and it’s so inspiring. Also, always teaching and learning different dances and different songs strengthens our synapses as we get older. At the same time, there are those who can’t really push their bodies hard, and honoring that limit is also born of strength. There’s a place in the hula tradition for dancers of every level.

Are there any ways in which you are fighting age?

I don’t fight age because, you know, it’s something we all go through if we’re lucky. I’ve even decided not to dye the gray out of my hair anymore!

Photo: Peter Jew

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