How Dancing Hula and Honoring My Hawaiian Heritage Helped Me Learn to Love My Body


My grandma, a beautiful hula dancer.My grandmother, a beautiful hula dancer.

Hula runs in my blood. When my Papa saw my Grandma Becky dancing hula one night in a dance hall, armed with her ukulele, mu’u mu’u, and beautiful smile, he fell in love. She passed on her grace to my mom, who’s a beautiful hula dancer as well, and the story goes on.

I grew up on the island of O’ahu, Hawai’i. Like every local girl, I started hula lessons at a young age — for me, it was age 5 — and continued all the way up until moving to California at 15 years old. For a decade, I toured the island with my halau (group) and danced for audiences at Waikiki Beach, Ala Moana Mall, and the Shorerider Hotel — iconic landmarks of the island that were frequented by visitors. We loved giving tourists our lei after a performance.

Even as little girls, we were confident and had a purpose. We grew up learning about our culture and identity through our ancestors’ way of storytelling. We chanted in Hawaiian words we probably didn’t even know in English yet. We were bonded, and looking back, it’s truly amazing to me how dedicated we were at such a young age. We were taught by our hula kumu (teacher) that when we dance, we channel the spirit of the person we’re talking about. Back then, it gave me goosebumps. I truly felt a presence whenever I danced.

My mother at my age right now (25) getting ready to dance.My mom, around my age (24), getting ready to dance hula for guests.

As graceful and fluid as hula dancers make their movements appear, hula is an extremely demanding art form. We spent countless hours perfecting our ami, with our hips swaying, knees bent low, shoulders perfectly still, and chins up with pride. As I grew older and went through growth spurts, I always had a thick layer of muscle around my legs. This is the trademark of any hula dancer: our bodies are trained to be powerful and hold us through all our dances without faltering.

Because of this, I always felt strong. I believe that hula was essential in shaping my body image. I loved my legs for carrying me through Hawai’i’s jungles and mountains and kicking powerfully through the ocean when I surfed. Of course, I had insecurities, too — especially when my adolescent mind convinced itself that my muscular thighs didn’t look cute in skinny jeans. But I felt grounded when I danced, and I was always went back to hula to make peace with how I looked.

It wasn’t until I stopped dancing and moved to California at 15 that I started to notice my self-esteem take a turn. My insecurities had been growing since I learned about the move. I had never moved away from my childhood home or left the friends I’d had since elementary school. I began to retreat to a very dark place in my mind, far from the joy I experienced when dancing hula.

I was lucky that I moved to such a gorgeous place. Humboldt County was its own sort of paradise, absolutely lush with redwoods and amazing coastlines. The air is always cool, even in the summer, so most people wore jeans or tights with jackets year-round. In the midst of my plunge of self-confidence, I absolutely loathed how I looked in skinny jeans and refused to wear them. I no longer used my legs for dancing and carrying me through performances. I no longer saw the beautiful, proud dancer in the mirror who was connected to her culture.

Without the vital connection to my Hawaiian culture, I lost sight of my identity and all the confidence I had spent years building.

Instead, I resorted to diets I found online, with calorie limits far too low for someone going through one of the biggest growth spurts of their life. I was hyper-vigilant about what I was eating and barely exercised. My body did the opposite of thrive — it weakened, and although the numbers on the scale were the lowest I’d seen, my confidence continued to sink even lower. Without the vital connection to my Hawaiian culture, I lost sight of my identity and all the confidence I had spent years building. More than a year went by — until one day, finally, a light appeared.

When I was a junior, a Samoan classmate moved to town. We instantly connected over our mutual Pacific Islander background, and she founded our high school’s first Polynesian Culture Club. I joined and, for the first time in years, I rediscovered the joy of dancing. We would perform at school rallies and theaters around town, and I began to reclaim that confidence. When Michelle moved away senior year, I became president. My friends stayed in the club, and I was able to share my love for my culture through the dances I taught them.

My body noticed the difference. As I reconnected with my culture, my heart grew stronger and I left behind the fad diets and lack of exercise for good. Now, my body and spirit needed to be fit and strong not only to carry me, but also to lead my new halau.

Me dancing for my brother's wedding.Me at my brother’s wedding, dedicating a hula to him and his wife.

When I moved on to college, I danced a few more times here and there: for my brother’s wedding, for my host family in Japan, at parties, and whenever a friend was curious and wanted to learn. Whenever I was going through a challenging time and felt like I was knocked off my feet, I’d dance a number in my dorm room, work, or wherever I was, just to ground myself and come back to that safe, strengthening place.

This month, for the first time in so many years, I joined an official hula halau in San Diego to get back into dancing consistently. I wanted to get back to the discipline of attending lessons and continuing to learn.

Our first practice, quite frankly, kicked my butt. We trained like athletes, all while wearing our pa’u skirts. I deeply regretted going to a hot yoga class that morning, because my thighs were screaming at me halfway through hula practice and my shoulders could barely muster another pushup. But my body, which remembered all the familiar movements and craved the motions, carried me through. And looking at myself in the mirror — surrounded by strong, confident women, all sweating, focused, and filled with joy to be dancing together — I felt that overflow of appreciation for my culture and for how beautiful I felt in that moment. The beauty I could only feel by connecting with my Hawaiian heritage.

Through hula, I was able to build a lasting and loving relationship with my Hawaiian identity. I’m so glad to be dancing again and will forever be thankful to my culture for making me see a beautiful reflection of myself in the mirror now. One that is strong, proud, and full of aloha.

Image Source: Chesiree Katter

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