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By  Renée Tillotson

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it!
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.


Perhaps when you muse upon our dear kumu hula Mālia Helelā, you hear her smooth, melodic voice in your mind’s ear, or you envisage her graceful hands and body swaying through the steps of a Hawaiian song. Or maybe you recall her deeply healing touch in a lomilomi massage that she gave you or taught you how to give. Maybe your heart twinkles, recalling the sound of her light, ever-ready laugh.

Mālia exudes such a smooth, gracious presence, you might miss her boldness, genius and power. And that’s where her magic actually lies.

To remind you of my husband Cliff’s definition of adventure, it’s: “Outcome Unknown”. Mālia has the grounded self-confidence to venture into the vast unknown, unconfined and unconcerned about never having walked a particular path before. And she has the humility to know that if she relies on what she’s been given by her parents, her teachers (kumu), and her ancestors (kūpuna), together with her own good sense and inner guidance, the outcome has a much greater chance of success.

Please allow me to tell you of some of Mālia’s acts of boldness, genius and power that I know about, and maybe you’ll get a hint of her magic. She considers these to be ‘moments of sovereignty’ when she deliberately and freely made life choices that chartered her own course.

While attending Kamehameha Schools for students of Hawaiian heritage, Mālia wrote her first massage manual for a school assignment at age 16. Who does that?!? She enrolled in the American Institute of Massage therapy at 18, graduating at 19. She became a LMT (licensed massage therapist) at age 20 and has been practicing lomilomi ever since.

At age 21, a few years after graduating from, Mālia kicked the island dust off her feet and flew to California for a solo holoholo (journey) around the US continent, visiting 23 states. It was such an unprecedented trip that her mother Mary began praying the rosary for Mālia’s protection. It evidently worked, Maliā returned safely and has been filled with wanderlust ever since, sharing her aloha wherever she goes.

Mālia at age 24 was one of only twelve contestants to compete for the title of Miss Hula Aloha at the vast Edith Kanaka’ole stadium for the 2002 Merrie Monarch Festival, the most prestigious annual hula event in the world. Having much later performed myself under Mālia’s direction and in the company of hundreds of other hula dancers flooding into the same stadium, I can assure you that it is one intimidating venue. I can’t even imagine the guts it would take to dance solo on that stage under the gaze of the world’s eyes! Mālia made all the preparations herself for her performance, from choosing and choreographing her songs to hand-fashioning the fern and flower accouterments for her costume. She felt the weight of a huge responsibility, and she rose to meet the occasion.

Most hula students take many decades to formally graduate from their traditional hula training and become kumu hula in their own right. Not Mālia. With her own kumu in advanced stages of cancer, Mālia battled her inner self-doubts and accepted the mantle of kumu hula, with all the extremely rigorous training leading up to it, still at the tender age of 24. There’s such a high level of scrutiny amongst the many kumu hula to assure that this traditional cultural practice stays true to its ancient lineage, that entering their ranks took every ounce of chutzpah (pardon the mixed linguistic metaphor) that Mālia could muster.

After a harrowing labor experience birthing her twin boys in the hospital, Mālia’s next big act of sovereignty was to “free birth” her daughter Ilana at home when she was 29 years old. She continued this trend by home schooling Ilana through the pandemic and beyond, with Ilana graduating this year!

Fortunately for me and the entire Still & Moving Center ‘ohana (extended family) that was yet to come into existence, Mālia left her decade-long full time massage job at the Waikiki Outrigger to come work for us in 2011 before we had even finished building out the place. She likes to describe what a leap of faith she made in joining me before we had even installed floors to dance on! I was a complete unknown, about whom her husband asked, “Who IS this woman you’re planning to work for?!?” She didn’t really know, of course, but she had already told the universe just before her 33rd birthday that she was ready for a big change in her life, and she somehow trusted that my job offer a week later was a response to her silent announcement.

Since we opened it’s door, Mālia and I have adventured stalwartly through all the ups and downs of Still & Moving Center’s many endeavors! Mālia and I have adventured stalwartly through all the ups and downs of Still & Moving Center’s many endeavors!

One of the first psychological hurdles for Mālia to clear was moving her hula hālau from practicing in a student’s living room or crowded garage or tiny studio in Chinatown to our Sun & Moon room. When she moved into our Dance Dojo with 850 square feet of space, the size felt intimidating. Little did she know at the time that she would eventually be filling over 2,000 square feet of our upstairs space with dancers and audience members!

I see one of Mālia’s biggest acts of sovereignty in this: She’s come to grips with the limits and the expanse of her authority as a young kumu hula to share her cultural practices in ways that she alone determines to be pono – right, just, appropriate. From my historical understanding, the missionary influence that outlawed hula in much of the 1800’s caused Hawaiian practitioners to quietly carry on their traditions in secret. Today’s Hawaiians understandably seek to protect their traditions.

In the multicultural context of Still & Moving Center, Mālia had to find a way to respect her cultural lineage while sharing traditional hula, protocols, and oli with students from around the globe. We’ve asked Mālia to share oli (Hawaiian chanting) and hula at Diwali, our annual Indian festival of lights. It breathes such a breath of life from the host culture when she does so! On several occasions she’s even teamed up with our Turkish teacher Murat Demirtas for duets of hula with belly dance – not exactly an orthodox Hawaiian practice, yet thoroughly delighting our audience!!! And Kumu Mālia felt great!

Please imagine, if you would this context: A local Hawaiian woman on Kauaʻi, beautifully dressed as Queen Emma, rides a flower-bedecked horse down into a mountain meadow for the traditional Emmalani Festival. As the queen-for-a-day arrives, dozens of hula halau from across the islands line up in the meadow to greet her on either side, each group chanting an oli of welcome in Hawaiian. The “queen” then takes her seat in a shady pavilion to spend the day watching the hula schools perform for her.

Now imagine Kumu Mālia at age 35 starting to show up at the festival with her new Still & Moving Center contingent of malihini (newcomers to Hawai’i) and Japanese haumana (students), and only a few native Hawaiian students other than her mom and young children. Brave, yeah? I hope that we all represented her well. For me, I felt highly privileged to be among her dancers for many years of the festival. For her, I imagine it to have been another daring leap.

I admire Mālia’s bold adaptiveness over the thirteen years I’ve watched her teaching. While keeping the same basic choreography of her kumu’s teaching, she’s taken the way her kumu used to teach to a whole new level (see Mālia’s classes). Every yoga, Nia, tai chi, Feldenkrais, or contemporary dance class she has ever taken at Still & Moving has subtly influenced how Mālia presents hula. Her training at our Academy of Mindful Movement has magnified her teaching’s evolutionary process.

Mālia began teaching lomilomi massage at Still & Moving. After studying in a long lineage of Hawaiian lomilomi, Mālia has developed her own 128 hour lomilomi training curriculum, with the pluck to give her course a name of its own: Puana Lomilomi. This unique style of lomilomi incorporates a lifetime of hula into the bodywork. We look forward to her future step of publishing a handbook for it!

More brave acts of self-definition… When I first asked her to conduct a blessing ceremony for one of our construction sites, she told me she wasn’t that kind of kumu. She struggled with whether or not she was selling her culture. My disappointment turned to gladness when she determined that there was no reason she couldn’t be that kind of kumu! Giving a blessing protects and uplifts the many people involved in a construction project. She has since blessed many sites and homes. At age 38, she began doing wedding ceremonies! When Covid rules prevented us from being on the beach, Mālia did one of her genius adapt-and-overcome moves: She and the couple stood in the water to join the two in marriage in the pre-dawn light!

After decades of writing songs together with her father, Manu, Mālia gave him the honor, on Father’s Day, of pressing the button to release her debut album Hula Love to the world. Her album of eleven original Hawiian songs is available here on Spotify. Fresh!

Last year, at age 45, she and a longtime family friend named Umi officially started a band named Kai Ea. You’ll love listening to them play live at Still & Moving on the last Friday of every month!

Kumu Mālia’s newest foray – now at 46 years old – started with a trip to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, to personally research her great-grandmother’s musical legacy. Many of us have heard Kumu’s story of her cheeky great-grandmother who had the nerve as a little girl to steal flowers from Queen Lilioukalani’s garden in order to be able to present the queen with floral lei at church on Sundays! That’s Mālia’s same tutu (grandmother) who turns out to have been a published musician! And the inspiration for some of Mālia’s daring!

What will Mālia do with the 3 pieces of her tutu’s music that she’s discovered so far? Why, of course she’s crafting a playscript, with the working title of “Tutu & the Queen”! Has she ever written or been trained in writing playscripts? No. Will that stop her? Absolutely not.

Mālia has already described the dramatic final scene of the play to me, and I can feel the magic!

Renée Tillotson

Renée Tillotson, Director, founded Still & Moving Center to share mindful movement arts from around the globe. Her inspiration comes from the Joy and moving meditation she experiences in the practice of Nia, and from the lifelong learning she’s gained at the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara, California. Engaged in a life-long spiritual quest, Renée assembles the Still & Moving Center Almanac each year, filled with inspirational quotes by everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dolly Parton. Still & Moving Center aspires to serve the community, support the Earth and its creatures, and always be filled with laughter and friendship!

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This post is also available in: 日本語 (Japanese)