George Na’ope, 81, was a master of Hawaii’s sacred hula dance

George Lanakilakeikiahiali’i Na’ope was a cultural icon in Hawaii. In 1964, he founded an annual weeklong festival to celebrate traditional Hawaiian art, crafts, music, and dance. George Lanakilakeikiahiali’i Na’ope was a cultural icon in Hawaii. In 1964, he founded an annual weeklong festival to celebrate traditional Hawaiian art, crafts, music, and dance. (Hula Preservation Society)
By Dennis Hevesi
New York Times / November 7, 2009

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NEW YORK - George Na’ope, whose mastery of the hula made him a last link between an ancient ritual and modern entertainment, died on Oct. 26 at his home in Hilo, Hawaii. He was 81.

The cause was lung disease, said Iwalani Kalima, his student and caretaker for more than 40 years.

Known as Uncle George to thousands of fans, the diminutive Mr. Na’ope (he stood barely 5 feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds) was considered a hula lo’ea, or hula master, said Maile Loo, executive director of the Hula Preservation Society in Kaneohe, Hawaii.

“We view him as the last of the great masters who spent their life training and teaching hula,’’ Loo said in an interview Tuesday. “His reach around the world is unmatched.’’

For more than 60 years Mr. Na’ope taught hula and chant in Europe, South America, Australia, Japan, and in the continental United States.

Although he had a long career performing the more modern mode of the dance, even comic versions, his greater role was in inspiring native Hawaiians to revive the flowing, pantomimic sacred dance of Hawaii and its lilting chants.

In 1964 Mr. Na’ope was a founder of the Merrie Monarch Festival, a weeklong event held each spring in Hilo celebrating traditional Hawaiian art, crafts, music and dance. The festival has achieved worldwide recognition for its contributions to history and culture.

A highlight of the week is a three-day hula competition. Mr. Na’ope would often appear in a broad-brimmed hat adorned with long feathers and silk tropical foliage, gold medallions around his neck, and oversized rings on each of his fingers.

Unlike some Polynesian dances, the hula began as a form of worship, evolving into a form of entertainment only in the 20th century. Every body movement or hand gesture had a specific meaning. A movement might represent a particular plant or animal or symbolize war or peace. In imitating a shark or waving palm tree, the true hula dancer believed that he or she had become the shark or palm.

“The old style is accompanied by a chant, our version of a song that tells a story,’’ Loo said. “Because we had no written language, everything was preserved through the chants: our history, our values, the stories.’’

Modern hula - often accompanied by ukulele, steel guitars, or piano - usually does not involve chanting. “In sacred hula you use hollowed gourds, drums made from trunks of coconut trees with a shark skin over the top, water-worn pebbles that are clicked together,’’ Loo said.

Through his workshops, concerts, and the festival, Mr. Na’ope sought to revive the tradition.

“By the end of the 1950s, there were only about five people who had the upbringing that Mr. Na’ope had in what we call hula kapu, or sacred hula,’’ said Nalani Kanakaole, a Hawaiian studies professor in Hilo. “They started what we call the Hawaiian renaissance, and because of Uncle George and those other people, ancient hula has been redeemed from that Hollywood-type image.’’

For George Lanakilakeikiahiali’i Na’ope, it began in childhood.

Born in Kalihi, a poor neighborhood of Honolulu, he was one of six children of Harry Jr. and Mariah Ka’alepo Na’ope. When he was 3, a neighbor began teaching him hula chanting. The family moved to Hilo when George was 13. Soon afterward, he was teaching hula for 50 cents a lesson. In his sophomore year, a friend who was auditioning as a dancer for Ray Kinney, a renowned Hawaiian bandleader, asked George to accompany him with chanting.

Mr. Na’ope and several other devotees started the Merrie Monarch Festival, dedicating it to King David Kalakaua, who ruled Hawaii in the late 19th century. The festival is now attended by about 20,000 people each year.

“I felt the hula was becoming too modern and that we have to preserve it,’’ Mr. Na’ope said in 2006 when he received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the country’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. “I decided to honor Kalakaua and have a festival with just hula. I didn’t realize that it was going to turn out to be one of the biggest things in our state.’’

Mr. Na’ope leaves a brother, Francis; three sisters, Eileen Crum, Bernie Konanni, and Emma Werley; and an unofficially adopted son, Beyers Hoatili Na’ope.

Mr. Na’ope remained a revered presence at the festival, perched on a huge peacock-style chair. In April, he was in a wheelchair. But in previous years, cheering crowds gave him standing ovations when he performed a hula for the festival’s finale.