Hula From the Past, Advancing Into the Future

Na Lei Hulu dancers, with Patrick Makuakāne in the white lei (Lin Cariffe)

Hawaiian culture runs deep in the Bay Area, and one reason is the work of Patrick Makuakāne, the founder and leader of the dance company Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu. The company celebrates 30 years of hula mua ("hula that evolves"), based on Makuakāne's innovative choreography and musical choices, with a series of concerts at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco running from Oct. 17–25.

We recently sent Makuakāne some questions about Na Lei Hulu's history, and his work, with its mix of power and grace. Here's the interview.

Your dances are rooted in tradition, but borrow from modern styles. And you sometimes use pop music, like Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” What do you gain by shaking things up like that?

I feel that hula is one of the most beautiful forms of expression in dance and I don’t want to limit it just to Hawaiian music. Traditionally speaking, the poetry associated with the dance is the main vehicle that expresses the story. As much as I love Hawaiian music and chants, I’m also inspired and intrigued by other genres and feel that hula is a perfect way to embellish those beautifully crafted stories, whether it’s from Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, Roberta Flack, or Kuana Torres Kahele.

Why is it easier to innovate here on the mainland than in Hawai'i?


A friend from Hawai’i once mentioned to me that it must be great practicing hula without anyone peering over your shoulder judging your work. I never thought about it that way, but he had a point. There’s definitely been a sense of liberation (as well as isolation) without having to deal with a running commentary about the work. Basically, I felt free to do whatever I wanted. And did.

You call your hula style hula mua. What does that mean?

Mua is a word that can mean forward/ahead or even before, depending on how it’s used. I like to think of Hula Mua as bringing something from the past and advancing it to the future.

Na Lei Hulu dancers
Na Lei Hulu dancers (Lin Carliffe)

The Bay Area’s a hotbed of traditional ballet, modern and ethnic dance styles. What kind of dance has had the most influence on you?

I have seen a plethora of dance styles living here in the Bay Area which I deeply admire, but the style that speaks to me the most is hip-hop. I love the intricate use of hand/arm movements and the dynamic way it’s linked to the lower body. It reminds me of a highly stylized hula.

You studied with some of the great hula masters, and yourself are now a master, a “kumu hula.” What do your old teachers say about your style, and do you worry about offending them?

Interestingly enough, one of my teachers is a staunch traditional exponent and yet she loves our modern interpretation of hula. She appreciates the fact that I am committed to passing on everything she taught me as it was taught. I strongly feel that these beautiful traditional heirlooms are perfect in their pristine state and I don’t feel the need to re-imagine them in a contemporary format.

Conversely there are no rules in hula that say I cannot choreograph or create dances accompanied by pop, electronic or alternative music. I’m not here to turn tradition on its head. I believe that preserving your traditions while simultaneously evolving your art form are not mutually exclusive pursuits and my teacher agrees. As long as she’s happy, I’m happy!

You’ve been teaching hula and leading your hula company Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu for thirty years. How has your teaching changed over the decades?

I’ve learned to trust my instincts more and more. Sometimes I’ll leap then look. As I’ve gotten older, I’m able to be really be present when I’m teaching, feeling the power and beauty of the moment in a way that I wasn’t able as a young "kumu" (teacher). I’m also more grateful than ever to have such a meaningful way to connect with others through hula, be it my students, colleagues or the audience.

What have your students taught you in that time?

There is a saying in Hawaiian, "Aohe hana nui ke alu ia," meaning no task is too great when done together by all. We have accomplished tremendous work throughout the years and that’s because everyone in the community works together to ensure that we can make anything happen.

What have you got planned for the next thirty years of teaching?

I’m not sure about the next thirty years… It’s been a glorious ride so far and I’ve taken things as they come, one fantastic experience after the next. But next year, I want to take my company to Burning Man! Hula in the desert. We thrive in environments that seem counterintuitive for hula and I’m already imagining a lyrical, traditional piece accompanied by electronic music, danced in a dust storm.