Hawaiian student celebrates Polynesian culture by teaching hula dance classes to UCF

Author: Ashley Marshall

Posted Friday, February 10, 2023 @ 11:59 AM

Grab some skirts and leis because a student from Hawaii has been teaching her peers the art of traditional Polynesian dancing at UCF’s Recreation and Wellness Center.

Senior kinesiology major Allyson Prater has been teaching hula and Tahitian-style dances throughout October. The first class was held Oct. 12 and taught hula, and the second class taught Tahitian last Wednesday. The third class will be held on Oct. 26 and will teach a mixture of both dances.

     “Even though it’s just dancing, there is just so much more to it; the actual story being told when you dance hula — every footstep matters. Every hand motion tells a story,” Prater said.

Hula and Tahitian are traditional Polynesian dances that use the motion of the arms and, most importantly, hips. Prater said that hula is more on the slow side, while Tahitian is faster.

Prater was impressed about how many people showed up to learn Hawaii’s cultural dances, she said. There are many different styles of hula and how it is performed. According to Go Hawaii, it is all part of a cultural practice of telling stories that connect the dancers to the land.

The origins of hula are still debated to this day because of the lack of records during that time and multiple myths. One of the earliest written records of hula was in 1778 when European James Cook recorded seeing men and women dancing on the island, according to the Ka`Imi Na`auao O Hawai`i Nei Institute.

     “A lot of the culture has been lost because a lot of Hawaiians’ history was always taught through speaking,” Prater said. “They didn’t know how to write, so they would always tell stories.”

Prater said the history of Hawaii is still very unknown to many students and U.S. citizens outside of Hawaii. Before Hawaii became a part of the U.S., the islands were ruled by a monarchy. When American missionaries came to Hawaii in the early 19th century, they saw hula dance as a sin, according to luaus.org. They banned Hawaiians from speaking their native language, learning about their gods and hula.

Hawaiian people lost their culture during this time and had Christianity forced upon them, Prater said. According to Merrie Monarch, it wasn’t until King Kalākaua’s reign in 1886 that the hula and other Hawaiian traditions were restored. Prater said every year since then, there has been a week-long performance of dancers celebrating the lifting of the ban.

     “The culture is so rich there; even though it is a state, there is just so much outside culture there,” Prater said. “There is a lot of minorities that are the majority too.”

Prater said it is hard to appreciate hula and the culture when you know nothing about it. She said that Hawaii is such a beautiful place, but tourist and visitors should learn the history before they go to the islands. Prater said it is mainly the educational piece that travelers are missing before they explore the island.

Prater said hula is so much more than just a hula skirt for costume. She said by teaching these classes, she wants to be able to give more insight about the history and culture to her students.

“It is such a sacred dance to them. The fact that it was criminalized and made illegal — it really became a huge thing when it was brought back,” Prater said.

Prater said she has been dancing for most of her life and has started instructing dance in the past year. This is her first time teaching at UCF. The hula dancer, however, does more than teach this dance class. She is also a building manager at RWC and a personal trainer.

Prater said her background in dancing has been making teaching her culture’s dance to other students and alumni easier.

One determined dancer and alumnus Weylin Cleri has attended both of Prater’s dance classes, and he plans to attend the last session as well. He said he likes learning new styles of dance.

“This dance is a lot more flowy and a lot of hip movement, and I have been known to have really stiff hips,” Cleri said. “So, it is something I am trying to work on.”

Last month, Cleri said he attended Latin dance classes and is trying to become a better dancer. Cleri graduated this past spring as a health sciences major and plans to be a physician assistant in the future.

“I’m terrible at dancing, so I’m just getting out of my comfort zone a little bit and trying to learn something new,” Cleri said.

Junior film major Priscilla Pina said it was fun being able to participate in the traditional dance lesson.

“She was really clear with the instructions,” Pina said. “And it’s really cool that she is actually Polynesian.”

Pina said that this course was a nice refresher from when she learned hula and Tahitian dance briefly at her local sports center back in middle school. She said she only took those style classes for a year but enjoyed it.

“I would like if there were more dance classes like this — to be able to learn more about other traditional dances around the world,” Pina said.