Most SoCal Japanese Americans look at Sawtelle as a place of gathering to eat, shop for J-pop influenced items, enjoy West L.A. obon, and visit the local nursery. To me, Sawtelle symbolizes HOURS of hula competition practices and bonding with hula sisters over a sweet treat from Pinkberry.

Hula is not simply the dances that are shown at lūʻau or in cartoons. Hula is a Hawaiian cultural practice that shares knowledge and stories of people, places, and experiences. Hula has been described as “Hula is the language of the heart, and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” - King David Kalākaua 

When I say HOURS of hula competition practices… I mean countless hours. Within those hours literal blood, sweat, and tears have been shed. If you’ve ever thought hula is easy—I hopefully am not the first person to tell you, it is not. 

Backyard practice at my Kumuʻs house

For those who are not familiar with the world of hula competitions, imagine any other dance competition, but add in the aspect of being responsible for perpetuating a culture and being a cultural practitioner. To learn and showcase an oli (chant) or mele (song) on a competition stage requires extensive studying of the ʻōlelo (language), translation, and kaona (hidden meaning). 

So now you may be wondering “what does the preparation look like in order to present this Hawaiian cultural art form?”. I will do my best to explain my experience in preparing for a hula competition, but please understand this is just scratching the surface and my experience alone. 

Onstage rehearsal before the competition (E Hula Mau 2010)

The physical preparation begins with learning the correct pronunciation of the words and melody of the oli and mele. Once the ʻōlelo has been learned and understood, generally, Kumu Hula (hula teacher) will choreograph hand and feet motions to portray the meaning of the mele. They then teach the haumāna (in this case, pupil of the hālau (hula school)) the motions, and sometimes even stories to further understand the ʻōlelo. Once the motions are learned by the haumana, intensive practice begins. The time commitment to hula competitions can range from three months to one year of training, one to six practices per week, one to eight hours per practice. During competition training, when a hula dancer says hula is life… they mean it. Eat, breathe, sleep hula.

The emotional aspects in the experience of preparing for a hula competition include, but are not limited to: responsibility, spiritual, focus, STRESS, joy, ambition, defeat, accomplishment, exhaustion, kinship, and so much more. Truthfully, it is quite challenging trying to write all of the adjectives for the emotions put into a performance that is showcased on a hula competition stage. 

Hula Competition in Orlando, FL (July 2023)

After months of practices and buckets of sweat and tears, it’s competition time. Preparation does not end when we arrive at the competition. Once we arrive at the competition all focus is on our performance on stage. Not only do we continue to practice, we prepare fresh lei, flowers for our hair, and any other adornments that are needed to complete our presentation look.*

*Side note regarding costuming and adornments: every fabric, outfit style, type of flower/adornment is specifically chosen to represent aspect(s) of a hula presentation.

Following all of those months and hours of training and practices, it’s time to take the stage. There is no other rush like the one I get right before stepping onto a competition stage. Emotions are running wild, all while trying to keep my nerves contained and focus on the task at hand. Stepping onto a competition stage always starts with a deep breath, this deep breath is to ease the nerves and get the whole team in sync. Before I know it, the (less than) seven minute presentation is over and we’ve danced off the stage. 

Grainy Facebook photo from E Hula Mau 2009

Summer of 2023 felt like a true crossover between the Sawtelle I knew growing up, and Little Osaka. During the backyard practices, I could hear the faint beating of the taiko drums and recordings of familiar obon songs. When asked if I knew the songs playing, I was proudly able to answer "yes" and shared with my Kumu that I grew up going to Gardena's obon practice after hula practices on Tuesdays. Crossover #2 happened when all of the Yo! Camp counselors took over Seoul House of Tofu in Sawtelle. As the counselors got back into town, many of them gathered at this restaurant, and as luck would have it, I was finishing up yet another hula practice.

Community isn't always a specific place, but where your people are. For many years, my view of Sawtelle was not that of a Japantown, but rather a place where I learned hula. If it were not for hula, and learning about Hawaiian culture, I may not have as much appreciation and desire to learn about my Japanese (American) heritage. Understanding the importance of perpetuating cultural stories and traditions is more effective when there is physical space—especially when that physical space is where our history occurred.

My first hula competition (2009)

For another perspective, and perhaps better understanding of training and competing in a hula competition, watch this video: What It Takes to be a Hula Champion

Hula Practices in Little Osaka

Most SoCal Japanese Americans look at Sawtelle as a place of gathering to eat, shop for J-pop influenced items, enjoy West L.A. obon, and visit the local nursery. To me, Sawtelle symbolizes HOURS of hula competition practices and bonding with hula sisters over a sweet treat from Pinkberry.


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