Embodied Storytelling is Not New

Intro: For thousands of years Indigenous Pacific cultures have integrated oral traditions and dance. Kim-Hee Wong shares her experiences of practicing hula, Hawaiian dance, in response to a presentation by Sean Dorsey in the 2018-2019 OHMA workshop series, Oral History and the Future: Archives and Embodied Memory.

Many of my classmates were fascinated by Dorsey’s process and ability to transform and then transmit the stories and experiences of his narrators as a dance; but as a Native Hawaiian who grew up dancing hula (Hawaiian dance), this process seemed obvious. For thousands of years, indigenous people have told and retold stories through oral traditions (chants, stories, sounds) and embodied physical movements (dance). Despite colonization and marginalization of indigenous people within their nations, these traditional practices have served and continue to serve as vehicles for transmitting genealogical and cultural knowledge. It is because of these oral traditions that indigenous people are able to perpetuate and promote their cultural practices and language.

In Pacific Island communities, each culture has their own oral traditions and practices that they utilize to perpetuate and demonstrate their stories, values and traditions. In Tahiti, ori tahiti (Tahitian dance) incorporates drums and places an emphasis on the dancer’s hips as a way to tell the story. This is different from the sasa (Samoan group dance) where men and women sit and perform synchronous hand movements to demonstrate daily village activities. In Aotearoa (New Zealand) the haka (Māori chant) is known as a battle chant; however, it can take many forms and be presented at various ceremonies and events such as a wedding or funeral

As a Native Hawaiian who practices hula (Hawaiian dance) I am conscious of every movement I make as I use my hands to tell the stories of epic battles, creation myths and tales of love and loss. In hula there are specific movements that indicate specific ideas, words or phrases. It can be a simple gesture such as placing your fingertips at the corner of your eyes to show your eyes or more complicated like fluttering your fingers as your hands move downward in front of you to indicate rain. Typically, younger students learn by sitting on their knees and focusing on hand and eye movements before incorporating feet-work. One of the first dances (mele) that I learned, Ke Ao Nani (The Beautiful World) tells the story of the world around us – the uplands, the ocean, the birds, the fish. I remember focusing on each hand and head movement as I chanted along. Moving my hands up to reference the mountains and down to the sea. Making a strong tree with my arm and then carefully placing one hand on top of the other to show the fish swimming in the sea.

As I grew older the complexity of each dance increased and I learned to use my head and eyes to follow my hands as my hips smoothly sway from one side to the next. I try to imagine the story in my head while listening to the words being sung or chanted and then convey my emotions through my facial expressions– a smile if it is happy, looks of despair in times of heartbreak or rage in my eyes when a battle ensues. I believe that in order to share a story I must embody that story, meaning I have to place myself in the time and space of that particular moʻolelo (story). Whether that means sliding on the moss of the rocks in the muliwai (fresh-water stream) or lying in the sun and relaxing on the famous Waikiki Beach, I have to envision myself there and then transport my audience with me.

Over the years I realized that hula is more than just a dance activity or cultural practice. It is central to the perpetuation of Native Hawaiian culture, language and my identity. When I dance I see myself as a vessel for my kūpuna (ancestors) and their stories. I feel their presence within me as I connect the past and present through the stories that I share. King David Kālakaua once said “Hula is the language of the heart, therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people”. Hula influenced my love for stories and language and culture. Without knowing it, hula was my introduction to oral history. More importantly hula is what connects me to my identity as a Hawaiian. It is through the stories of my kūpuna (ancestors) that I know, He Hawaiʻi Au. I am Hawaiian.

Kim-Hee Wong is a student in the 2018 Columbia University Oral History MA Program. Traveling far from her home in Hawaiʻi, her work centers on the personal and professional paths of Native Hawaiian female leaders in the twenty-first century. Through her work she shares the aloha spirit and hopes that it will live and carry on.