Arts & Culture » Culture

Home Away from Hawaii

A group of women keeps an adopted tradition alive


Hawaii is nearly 2,800 miles from Boise, but stepping into Karen McFarlane's home near Edward's Greenhouse, it sure doesn't feel like it. Giant hibiscus flowers rise out of flowerbeds, and shelves are scattered with knickknacks from faraway islands.

But that's not what makes her home so reminiscent of the tropical paradise--it's the hula dance practices held in her living room every Tuesday night.

Four women, ages 21 to 74, don long, bright yellow Pa'u skirts that sport hot-pink hibiscus flowers. The skirts make a swishing sound as the ladies sway from side to side.

McFarlane, who goes by "Auntie" Karen, reflecting a Hawaiian tradition of calling unrelated elders "auntie" or "uncle," pushes play on an old boom box and mutters as the disc skips. She removes the CD, wipes it on her hula skirt and tries again. The living room fills with the sound of light ukulele strumming and airy, male vocals. The women start dancing through flowing, swaying routines in unison.

The hula dancing community in Boise wasn't always confined to a living room. Boise State University used to have the Hui-O-Aloha hula club, which brought some 16 women, 10 children and six men together to dance on Tuesdays, but the club fizzled out a few years ago. So Auntie Karen opened her house and has kept the passion alive--even though she isn't Hawaiian.

She visited a friend in Hawaii in 1992 and loved it so much, it changed the course of her life. She started visiting yearly, bought a house, lived on the island for a year and a half and took up hula dancing full-swing.

"When you go there, when you step off the plane, you can just physically feel the place," Auntie Karen said. "Even in the airport, you can smell the flowers. When you find a place that makes you feel like that, you want to be there."

Today, the 66-year-old has brought that place back to Boise as much as she can. She wears a purple fabric hibiscus in her hair, a small hula-girl pendant around her neck and has a tattoo of a hula dancer wrapped around her ankle. She also instilled the love of hula dancing in her granddaughter, Sharissa Hamson.

"Tell her your middle name," Auntie Karen said to Hamson when Boise Weekly visited one of the Tuesday hula sessions.

"It's Makalani," Hamson said while her grandmother nodded and smiled.

Hamson started hula dancing as a child, when her grandmother took her to a luau at Boise State. Now, at 21 years old, Hamson has been deemed one of the best hula dancers in the Northwest.

Hamson traveled to Vancouver, Wash., at the end of July to partake in the Hapa Haole hula festival, a competition that takes it name from an island term for music that is Hawaiian in style or origin, but with English lyrics. She danced to a song from 1941 called "South Sea Sadie," spicing up the traditional hula moves with saucy smiles, her long blonde hair cascading down her back and tucked behind white hibiscus blossoms almost as big as her face.

She took first place in the solo category.

"She was the only white woman, and she won," said Auntie Alva (Easterling), the only woman in the small group who is Hawaiian. "She's as white as can be. She beat all those Hawaiians."

Auntie Alva moved to "America," as she puts it, when she was 25. Today, she's 74, and though she goes by "auntie," she's the grandmother of all things hula. She has performed and taught the traditional dance for most of her life.

"I started dancing hula when I was little. We all did. My dad played music and I danced in the bars when I was 12," Auntie Alva said. "Those people who say they dance for their culture? Phhhht. We danced to make money."

"Yeah, we're hula-for-hire," Hamson joked.

Hamson hasn't been to Hawaii, though it's a dream of hers to go. Born and raised in Boise, she works at Whole Foods and is trying to decide whether she wants to study radiology or nutrition. She still fits in at least four hours of hula dancing every week.

During the recent Tuesday night practice, she grew impatient as Auntie Karen showed off photos from the competition. Hamson doesn't dress in full costume at these gatherings--she wore a Star Wars T-shirt tucked into her Pa'u skirt--but she takes her dancing seriously.

"Can I dance now?" she asked. "I just want to dance."

When she did dance, Auntie Alva gave her tips like, "When you touch the warmth of the sun, you're supposed to take it in," and, "Make your wind bigger. You're not just brushing your hair," or "Stop sticking your tongue out."

They don't move their hips as much--it's all about shifting weight from foot to foot. Every move the ladies made signified an important moment in the songs they dance to.

"This song is about a man needing to make leis for his mother's birthday," Hamson explained. "So he goes with his friend on an adventure to pick these flowers. It's all about their travels."

The ladies gracefully swing their hands above their heads to symbolize throwing flowers into the air.

Hamson said she doesn't want to stop at being best in the region. She dreams of one day becoming Miss Aloha Hula--the best in the world.

Despite Hawaii being thousands of miles away, Idaho has a unique connection to the Aloha State. In 1819, three Hawaiians joined a fur-trapping expedition along the Snake River. They were sent to trap in a large stream nearby and never returned, so the trappers called the region "Owyhee" in their honor--an early spelling for the word Hawaii.

Auntie Karen loves this history and often repeats the county's etymology, excited by yet another connection to her paradise--bringing it a little closer to Boise, if only in her living room.