Student Turned Teacher
Celebrating 10 Years of Dancing with Kumu Mālia
By Sarah Hodges
This week, Still & Moving Center’s beloved Doris Morisaki celebrates 10 years of dancing hula with Kumu Mālia Helelā. Her dedication in hula class has brought many joyful experiences, from evolving into a teacher herself to spontaneously gracing public stages with renowned Hawaiian musicians such as Na Leo and Ho’okena!
Doris claims with a laugh, “I love the limelight, but I had no singing, dancing, or movement lessons at all as a child. Finally, in my middle-aged years, I have a talent to share – hula! ” Now with 3,200 classes at Still & Moving under her belt, Doris has developed into a highly skilled mover, not to mention one of our most prolific students in class attendance.
Though not a ‘mover’ per se in her younger years, when Doris graduated from the UH Manoa she took a 6-week hula class for the first time and loved it. Then she got engaged, moved to Israel, got married, had a child, and life went on. In the early 2000s, with her son in preschool, Doris ventured back into dancing again at the now-closed Honolulu Club, enjoying the fusion fitness practice called Nia, dancing alongside Renée Tillotson. Eventually, when Renée opened her own movement studio, Doris missed dancing with Renée, so she got a Still & Moving Center membership.
That membership opened Doris to one of the landmark event in Doris’ life: meeting and dancing with Kumu Mālia Helelā, and falling head-over-heels in love with hula.
Doris serves as an example of just how far a person can go with gusto, dedication, and a go-for-it attitude. Within a few years, Doris was subbing for Mālia’s hula auwana classes whenever she left the island. In 2020 when the pandemic hit and Still & Moving moved all its classes online, we suddenly had a new population of interested hula students wanting to join us from Japan. With Kumu’s blessing, Renée asked Doris to use her Japanese language skills to start her own hula class in Japanese without the slow-down of using a translator.
Whew! That was a big ask! Even though Doris is from a Japanese-American family, third generation, she didn’t grow up speaking Japanese. She’d taken Japanese classes over the years and practiced with native speakers. Her accent is perfect, but her vocabulary was limited – and in particular, her hula vocabulary. “I felt OK about the teaching part,” Doris says about her initial reaction to the proposed classes. “But teaching in Japanese – that was really a stretch!”
She hesitantly accepted the offer, thus beginning to “really stretch herself,” and truly grow as a hula dancer in surprising ways. She used her English/Japanese dictionary a lot and especially listened with rapt attention to all of the Japanese hula words that Mālia’s translator Eriko Jones was using. Doris says, “I also watch Mālia like a hawk for precise angles and positions for every movement pattern,” something she continues to do.
“I’m so grateful for teaching and for how much it’s helped my hula,” says Doris. “You can’t teach unless you are really sure about the movements.” She’s found her own voice as a teacher and her own way of teaching hula that is non-traditional, gaining some inspiration from her Ballroom dancing and Nia dance experiences.
Kumu Mālia enthuses, “Doris has distinguished herself as a rare person who combines warmth and humor with skill and expertise. She is a treasure!”
Doris has even managed to use innovation to transform a ‘limitation’ she feels she has, and turn it into something beneficial for her students. “When Kumu Mālia teaches, she is doing so many things at the same time – dancing, translating Hawaiian, singing, playing ukulele, cueing the movements, all while teaching sometimes both online and in-person students at the same time. She makes it look so easy – and it’s not!” Doris, discovering how difficult it was for her to emulate Mālia’s example, could instead offer students something else, maybe from her own strengths as a keen observer and a diligent student. Since she didn’t have an ukulele in hand, she decided she would focus on hand, wrist, and arm movements to warm up the class. With such important movements in hula, Doris knew there could never be too much time and attention spent on the details of these body parts.
Doris confesses, “Some nights I’ll lay in bed trying to work out the movement, really breaking it down so that I can present it to students in a way that they feel they can do it and not feel awkward. That’s one of the biggest rewards I get from teaching,” she explains. “When I see that something I said or a hack I discovered help make a lightbulb go on for the student, and they really ‘get it,’ it’s such a joy.
Entranced by watching Kumu Mālia and Doris dance together in perfect synchronicity and also co-teach on occasion, Director Renée comments to Mālia: “What’s wonderful is that Doris so beautifully represents the heart of your teaching, as well as of your choreography, while teaching in her own unique manner. There seems to be such a complementary dynamic between you and Doris. Your students can learn the same content from two quite different approaches. Doris doesn’t just parrot your words. She reaches into her own experience of learning your hula and teaches from that standpoint. There’s a bit of yin and yang going on between you.” And Kumu heartily agrees.
Doris’s hula name is Aukahikealoha, which means ‘flowing together as one.’ “To me, it also means perfect grace,” says Kumu Mālia, “which I think wonderfully describes her.” Doris has become a beloved teacher to the community of Still & Moving Center.
Renée concludes, “We have the words ‘Claim your magnificence!’ written on the wall above our front desk. Watching Doris rise through her stages as a Nia mover to a hula dancer and now to a skilled hula teacher is one of Still & Moving Center’s finest examples of someone claiming their magnificence. We are enormously proud of her!”
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This post is also available in: English (英語)