Pele : Goddess of Hawaii's Volcanoes by Herb Kawainui Kane Our Price: $8.95
Kawainui Press; ISBN: 0943357012

Order Pele : Goddess of Hawaii's Volcanoes Today!
The Gilded Serpent presents...
Pele's Gift
by Laurel Victoria Gray

"I know exactly what I want to do for the ritual dance into the sea. I want to be Pele," I told the sponsor . Only later did I realize how audacious was my decision, a decision which launched me on an unusual adventure into another culture.

I was ecstatic when she asked me to be the guest teacher at her annual Maui dance retreat. For years, ever since she first conceived of this event, I had watched from the sidelines, observing all stages of the preparations. And after each retreat, I would hear the magical stories of what everyone had done; I enjoyed watching amazing video footage. But as much as I, too, wanted to be part of this event, I realized that my particular specialities -- Persian, Uzbek, Georgian, Russian Gypsy, Ancient Egyptian and such --seemed too esoteric and out of the mainstream of the general "belly dance" current. Delilah has long understood the connections between these forms and her beloved belly dance; after all, she was part of my 1989 performing arts delegation that traveled to Uzbekistan. But we both knew that many others had not yet arrived at that consciousness. To finally receive an invitation to Maui suggested to me that these non-Arabic forms had finally been embraced by the Middle Eastern dance community.

One of the reasons that this sponsor chose Maui for her belly dance retreat is her devotion to dancing with nature and a yearly highlight is the ritual dance into the sea. Participants prepared by creating "seafaring" costumes. I had decided to portray the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele, a deity near and dear to my heart since she is a redhead and there are not that many redheads in mythology. (As a child I despaired whenever the fairy tales spoken of maidens with flaxen hair or raven tresses. Were there no copper tops?)

Over the months I had worked on the design and then began crafting the actual costume for Pele. The skirt had flames appliqued on it, the top had glittering, starlike sparks, as did the headdress. With Pele's special garments packed away safely in my suitcase, I began the last leg of my journey -- the flight from Los Angeles to Maui. It was then the magic began.

Shortly after I took my aisle seat, a striking couple took the two seats next to me. The woman, tall with long, dark hair and sculpted features, reminded me of an Uighur artist friend of mine. As it turned out, her resemblance was more than physical, since this woman, too, was an artist. Soon after take off she began reading something aloud to her husband -- in Hawaiian! As she translated the words, it became clear that this was the text of a sacred prayer.

Ask her about Pele! This can't be a coincidence that she is sitting right next to you. Ask her!

In spite of this inner prompting, I restrained myself. I have had my privacy invaded too many times to be cavalier with the privacy of others. If we were meant to speak to each other, the occasion would present itself

And it did. She soon struck up a conversation with me and I discovered that my fellow traveler -- who I shall refer to as Kaia -- was a Hawaiian kahuna or traditional healer. Her husband, who had native American blood, was a shaman who had studied with descendants of the Incas in Peru. My new friend was also a painter; she was traveling to Maui to exhibit her work. Her special themes of late were goddesses, angels, and fairies. This revelation opened the door for me to explain what I was doing. I began to ask questions about Pele.

"We love Pele" she explained. "Pele isn't about anger. It is more like a parent putting limits on children when they misbehave. She is about creativity." In this respect, Pele reminded me of her direct analog in the ancient Egyptian pantheon -- Sekhmet. Both had their fiery, destructive aspects and an association with the color red, but they also had positive features. Sekhmet, for example, had the power to heal.

Knowing that Pele is still honored and revered by native Hawaiians, I explained my trepidations about daring to represent her on her own soil. Of course, I had heard the stories about Pele's curse on the unthinking tourists who were foolish enough to take lava rocks home with them. What might she do to me for attempting to take her identity? As our plane drew closer to Hawaii, the idea I had nurtured for so many months began to lose its allure. Whatever had I been thinking?

"You must ask her permission. You must express your intent very clearly. Then you must wait for a sign." Kaia advised.

"And I also must be prepared to abandon this project entirely if I don't get a sign," I ventured.

Kaia gave me a long hard look and said, "I don't think that will be your problem. Your problem will be that she does grant your request."

"Why would that be a problem? ," I asked, with some concern.

"Because it will change your life. Because you will become a conduit for all of her primal, creative energy."

I squirmed a bit in my seat. This was beginning to sound like electroshock therapy.

"Once she gives you a sign, you must give her a gift," Kaia explained. "It can be something from nature, like a flower. Pele loves red. Red is her color, so something like a red flower would be appropriate. You will know it when you see it."

Kaia paused and thought some more. "Your hair," she added. "I think in your case you could also give her some strands of your hair."

As our flight continued, we spoke of many things mysterious and esoteric, things that strangers would rarely have discussed twenty years ago. The consciousness of the planet was indeed changing. But as we began the approach over Maui, all three of us fell into a reverential silence. We were coming to sacred land.

At the airport I was greeted by Steve and Delilah with a lei, and immediately was caught up in the excitement of the days to come. But before we left the airport, I opened my bags and gave Kaia a video of Egypta, my choreographic dance suite based on the myth and history of ancient Egypt. It seemed an appropriate gift for her sage advice.

All of Hawaii is Pele's creation, since the islands were the result of volcanic activity. This profound truth gradually unfolded itself as I explored Maui the next day. The other retreat participants had yet to arrive. On my first morning there, Delilah -- wise woman that she is -- awoke me with a cup of coffee. She then showed me the grounds. (Not the coffee grounds, but rather the setting of our retreat.) Mana Le'a Gardens, set on 55 acres of land, is far removed from mainstream tourism. We walked through the lush vegetation, admiring the huge, colorful blossoms, and the postcard perfect settings on every side. Was all of this Pele's work?

That afternoon and evening, the students began to arrive, all greeted at the airport, as I had been, with the traditional Hawaiian lei. When we first formally met and introduced ourselves, I found everyone to be openhearted and excited about the adventure to come. I have had the honor of teaching at all of the other major Middle Eastern dance theme camps: Mendocino, Oasis, and of course, the Central Asian camp. While each has its own wonderful ambiance, all share a comforting sense of comraderie. Perhaps by "going to camp" we abandon all pretense and posing; our inner child comes out to play.

With participants ranging in age from 18 to 70, we were a cross-section of women at all stages of life. Some of us were accomplished professionals, while others were novices with only a few lessons. How wonderfully affirming this was about the role of dance in our lives! For this Middle Eastern/Oriental/Arabic/Turkish/Persian/Belly dance/ Gypsy/Silk Road amalgam that we call "our dance" is about being alive, moving in our bodies, expressing ourselves, to the best of our individual abilities. Our dance is nothing less than a path to personal enlightenment. It should be open to all.

Most of the women had never had a Persian or Russian Gypsy dance class but they were game for it. And this was not only a physical challenge but a mental one too, since these two forms not only differ in movement vocabulary but also demeanor. One day students were expected to be coy yet demure, concentrating on light delicate steps and refined, precise gestures. Then, in the next class, they had to run and lunge and whirl, like proud and tempestuous beauties. Enough to cause a case of cultural whiplash!

Threaded among all the dance classes were excursions around Maui, some of them to magical, little known places. One of these treks required hiking down a steep cliff, a tremendous challenge to someone afflicted with acrophobia. Although I purposely try to force myself to overcome this by doing things like climbing up to roofs of cathedrals, the dizziness, the physical reaction to the heights is almost overpowering and takes me to the edge of panic. Somehow I fought back my animal fear and made it down the cliff. The tide pools were shallow and warm, even though it was barely dawn. Suddenly, as if a reward for passing a test, a rainbow appeared over the cliff. Could this be a sign from Pele?

Later that day I wandered up to the fabulous pool, complete with a waterfall and water slide. There, I spotted something red on one of the white lounge chairs. It appeared to be a piece of fungus, colored like flames. A gift of Nature for a goddess of Nature. I took it back to my room and wrapped several long strands of my hair around it.

In addition to Delilah's classes and mine, Armando taught percussion and local Hula teacher Nona Kaluiokalani -- a precious cultural treasure -- instructed us in her native dance. For years I have heard wonderful things about Nona and was excited to study with her. As a child, my older sister had studied Polynesian dance and had practiced the steps with me. Since then, I had attended many concerts and always enjoyed this art, especially the ancient hula.

As Nona began to demonstrate the first dance, I noticed many gestures in common with Central Asian dance. I felt as if another piece of our giant dance puzzle had fallen into place when Nona gestured to her heart and said, "the real hula comes from here."

Those who know me well know that when I am most excited, most awestruck, I become silent. In Nona's presence I was speechless. She was a teacher with many important lessons to impart and as Nona herself said, "Sometimes we need to just be quiet and listen."

After she went through her first dance, Nona paused "Does anyone here have questions?"

Ask her about Pele!
But I couldn't ask. I couldn't even speak for fear of breaking the magical spell of the moment.

But Nona heard my thoughts. "Somebody here wants to hear about Tutu Pele, " Nona said. "That's what we call her, Tutu Pele. I have seen her. I have seen her walking along with her walking stick."

If I had been unsure about the rainbow, then this surely was a confirmation for my unspoken request had been heard and voiced by a native Hawaiian. Short of an engraved invitation, this was as clear a sign as I could wish for.

Nona spoke to us about Pele, about the magical things she had witnessed, and perhaps most importantly, about the meaning of aloha. More than just a greeting, aloha is love. What kind of people were these, who said hello and goodbye with the word love? And what kind of beauty and wisdom had we destroyed? Nona explained that one can "show aloha" to others through simple loving gestures. "When you make a lei for someone, you should think about some happy incident, some good memory of that person with every flower. That's aloha."

Nona spoke with love of her own teacher, who was now aged and frail. She told us of her desire to pass down the hula to her students since the hula embodied so much that was central to Hawaiian culture, a culture that was fading. Nona became quite serious, even somber. "I have seen the prophecies come true," she said and I noticed that her voice quivered. What were these prophecies?

Later I was able to find the prophecies Nola had mentioned. They were haunting and unsettling in their accuracy. The Hawaiians had traditionally revered seers; rulers often kept prophets among their court advisors. One of the greatest of these was Keaulumoko. He foresaw the coming of the white man and the demise of the Hawaiian people. His prophecies were uncanny. By the 1880s, a hundred years after their first major contact with Western civilization, the native Hawaiian population had been reduced to 44,000 -- about one tenth their pre-contact size.

The next day, we arose early to prepare for our expedition to a secluded beach, probably the first time in my life that I had put on false eyelashes before 6 a.m. We were now challenged to put Delilah's theory of "dancing with Nature" into practice. Here was the ultimate experience in performance improvisation. The sand, the surf, and the wind all presented unexpected elements which changed our movements. Try to fight them and one becomes awkward and off-balance. But Nature becomes an exciting unseen partner for those who embrace her.

Each group of women created a unique dance as they improvised together. Some were lyrical and sensuous, others humorous and playful. We watched enchanted as each group took their turn. At last it was my chance. I carefully placed my gift on the beach were the tide would soon claim it. The image of Pele walking along the beach, surveying her creation, came to mind. I began to dance.

A sudden wind lifted up my veil, turning the orange, red, and yellow silk into dancing flames. My feet sank into the wet sand and I could not move as I had planned. Instead, the motions of the hula class surprisingly flowed throw me, taking command. This was the dance that this land had created. This was the dance that Pele now demanded. The gestures showing the land, the waves, the flowers, the rain, even the paddling of a canoe -- all made perfect sense. Only later did I discover that this particular beach is famous in Hawaiian lore. No doubt others had danced here before us.

This experience of dancing with Nature -- of dancing with Pele herself -- gave me a precious gift of fresh insight into Persian and Russian Gypsy dance. With all of my determination to document the history of these forms, to completely understand and breakdown the technique in a systematic fashion, to analyze and name the basic steps and positions, I had distanced myself from the actual source of the dance. This came to me with resounding clarity one morning in Maui when I decided to warm-up on the deck by one of the hot tubs. The railing was the perfect height for a ballet barre. After stretching, I started to practice some of the Russian Gypsy steps. I opened my arms, threw back my head, began to spin, and stared straight into the celestial blue sky. Of course, the sky! All the times I had practiced or performed this movement had been indoors. But these steps were originally created out of doors, in Nature. The significance of this spin shifted my perceptions; I felt as if I were opening myself up to the heavens. It was exhilarating.

Even my approach to Persian dance changed. When I first began to seriously study Persian dance twenty years ago, my teacher Shamiran Urshan, was also a singer and approached the dance with great musicality. Her dance unfolded according to her response to the music and her mood. She taught by having me follow her improvisations, not by breaking things down. While this system works fine for me, I later realized that for adult non-Persians, a more structured approach was required.

Taking inspiration from the system used in ballet and Uzbek dance, I created a series of position and molded them into my Classical Persian etude. Drawn from typical dance movements, poetic images, miniature paintings and even Persian architecture, these positions draw greatly from Nature. But I can honestly say that while I knew this intellectually, I did not know it on a truly cellular level until I came to Maui.

It began as an experiment. Inspired by the incredible natural beauty of our surroundings as well as the enthusiasm of the students, I suggested we schedule an additional class, an outdoor review session in the basic Persian positions In order to enhance the experience, we would practice in costume and videotape the event for at-home review. Several students agreed to participate. They agreed to bring skirts, veils, and jewelry from which we could improvise Persian-looking garments. I contributed numerous hats and costume pieces.

The transformation was remarkable. I had to look twice to recognize some of the women. Draped in flowing silks, their limbs became more eloquent. The kohl-rimmed eyes flirted more coquettishly. Instead of Americans on a Hawaiian vacation, they became aristocratic Saffavid ladies, out for a frolic in the private gardens of their estate.

Suliman joined us, pulling out his nay and sitting on a rock to play music for us. We moved slowly and graciously, each gesture flowing seamlessly into the next. Soon I abandoned the framework of the etude and began to improvise a dance. Magically, the women followed, enraptured by that precious moment in which the dancer and the music fuse into one.

This then was Pele's gift -- a new understanding of the inextricable link between Nature and the dance, a clear vision into the archaic origins of movement. Every gesture was suddenly imbued with new meaning. We were truly dancing with Nature, as our arms described the trees, the flowers, the vault of heaven, and the gentle breeze. We were not ourselves, but the houris of paradise, lured down to earth by the irrevocable command of Nature herself.

Thank you, Tutu Pele.

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
3-22-00 FANTASY DANCER by Tanja
TAK TAK ... DUM, In the sacred wood that night, The old Indian had kept his word, He would play for me...

2-19-00 Ramblin' Rant About Truth in Dance Advertising by Najida Da'nna
Thoughts and observations from sitting high up in the bleachers, amidst the pigeons and the dusty popcorn.

2-19-00 Honoring Our Connection Between Navel and Nasal by Delilah
People looked at us strangely, wrinkled their brows and said "Aromatherapy and what?"

1-4-00 The Day I Danced with Metallica by Lucy Lipschitz
Aside from my family, the two passions in my life are Metallica and belly dancing.

1-4-00 Preparing to Teach by Anthea Poole
This questionnaire is presented here to help you clarify your goals and ideas about teaching.

1-4-00 Using Magic is My Style by Ann Lucas
Do you want to make more money at your next gig? The answer is Magic!!!

  Cover page, Contents, Calendar Comics Bazaar About Us Letters to the Editor Ad Guidelines Submission Guidelines