Our Stories

Jade Snow: Dancing with Spirit

When Jade Snow '08 began dancing hula at age five, it was all fun and games. She never dreamed it would bring her a second family, an understanding of Hawaiian history and a sense of spiritual fulfillment.

"I started hula dancing recreationally at five because my mom thought it would be more fun than ballet," says the sophomore English major. "Dancing was a hidden talent for me and I picked up hula very quickly."

So quickly, in fact, that she found herself performing hula for tourists at local malls and other attractions. "My kumu [teacher] stuck to doing hapa-haole [pronounced hapa ha lay], a modern type of hula. The style is upbeat; the costumes are flashy. It uses songs and moves you see in Hollywood movies. If you come to a Hawaiian luau, this is the kind of hula you see."

By age 12, after years of dancing hapa-haole, she was burned out and wanted to quit. "It got so repetitive that I didn't feel like I was going anywhere with my hula."

Her mother didn't want her talented daughter to quit dancing. She suggested they look for another halau or hula school. If they didn't find one she liked, her mother said, Snow was welcome to quit hula dancing forever.

"I walked into this intermediate dance school and they were doing dance moves I'd never seen before," she says, her eyes shining at the memory. "The student dancers were serious, focused and very intense. I immediately knew that this was where I needed to be if I was going to grow as a dancer."

The school Snow chose taught kahiko, an ancient and demanding form of hula that requires the dancers to dance and chant. Instead of songs or string instruments like guitars, this hula form relies on ancient percussion instruments like 'ili'ili (stones), kala'au (sticks) and 'uli'uli (gourd rattle). Unlike the swaying, rhythmic movements of modern or 'auana hula, kahiko hula movements are strong and powerful. It is also steeped in ancient Hawaiian history and tradition.

"Hula is filled with stories, myths and Hawaiian gods. Hula dancing is a way to retell those stories and keep the traditions alive. Kahiko hula stays as close to the ancient ways as possible. Many kahiko kumus dye their own materials from natural berries for costumes. The chants they use are hundreds of years old. Studying the chants and the history and then interpreting the dance as close to the original intention as possible demands a lot from the kumu and from the dancer."

Preparation for performing kahiko hula is both physically and mentally rigorous. "A month before, you go on kapu to cleanse yourself. For instance, you don't eat any sugar. You eat as close to the ancient diet as possible -- lots of fish, taro, sweet potato -- because you are trying to tap into the ancient culture. The day before dancing, you go into the ocean at night to let go of all your inhibitions so that when you step onto the stage, you're entirely confident."

Snow thrived under the tutelage of her kahiko teachers. She was only in seventh grade when she danced in her first competition. She has since competed in a half dozen competitions, including the Merrie Monarch, the largest hula competition in the world held annually in Hilo, Hawaii. At 15, she began dancing professionally in a private luau show.

All the grueling work has given Snow a strong kinship with her teachers and her fellow dancers. Her kumus have become second mothers; the other dancers, her hula sisters. "It has given me a second family. I'm grateful to my kumus and feel very close to them."

Hula has also deeply bonded Snow to her island homeland. Born in Maui to a Filipino mother and Caucasian father, Snow knows more about Hawaiian history and culture than many Native Hawaiians. "Hula has connected me to Hawaii and Hawaiian culture. Most people don't know much about the rich Hawaiian history and its monarchy, but it's really important to me. During my middle and high school years, on May Day we would celebrate Hawaiian culture and living in the islands. I was always asked to dance a hula solo, which I was always honored to do."

It has also made her interested in other cultures, something she's exploring at Willamette University. "I enjoy learning about different cultures, their dances and their traditions. I also love sharing my Hawaiian culture with people here on the mainland by performing at the annual Willamette luau."

Perhaps most importantly, hula has awakened Snow's spirit. "Hula has given me faith in a higher power. When I dance, I connect to something else; something powerful. I bring everything I have to the dance and it becomes a spiritual experience."

The series of four images of Jade Snow dancing the 'auana (or modern form of hula) at the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel are copyright © 2004 by Mitchell Silver and used with permission.