Soft music floated through the air of a July afternoon as members of the University of Montana’s Pacific Islanders Club began their first dance of the night. Dancers lifted their arms and swung their hips side to side, wide smiles moving to the direction of their instructor.
The dancers were taking part in the weekly Hula @ the U class, an event put on by the Pacific Islanders Club. Hula, a traditional Polynesian dance developed in the Hawaiian Islands, is one of the club's many activities and events.
“In our culture, Hula is part of our ancestry, our ancestors' stories of creation,” said Kaaumoana Ahina, president and founder of the club. “This is a way for us to perpetuate the place we come from and our land.”
Ahina, a senior at UM studying communications, helped create the club to foster an island community in Missoula, where that was lacking. It was important to feel like he belonged, he said. He started the Hula classes three years ago as a way to practice islander culture far from home.
“It’s important to us. Especially being transplants from the islands,” he said. “We get to come and still live our lifestyle, here in Missoula.”
The group hosts many events, from potlucks to movie nights. This summer, group members decided to host summer Hula sessions. Beginning in June, the Pacific Islanders started holding classes every Monday from 5:30-6:30 p.m. on campus, wherever they could find space and shade.
It’s been especially important as a way to get outside and active during the pandemic.
“We’d rather be outdoors,” Ahina said. “We find places we can spread out and socially distance from each other.”
Mel Wardlow, a UM alumni, was born and raised in Hawaii before moving to the continental states for school. She reflected Ahina’s views on the importance of getting outside and socializing during these dynamic times.
“Hula is an activity that’s so easy to do outside, and it’s something that allows us to see each other and socialize in a safe way during the pandemic,” she said. “So it’s been a lovely thing to have during this time.”
Wardlow grew up dancing the Hula, and to find it again in a place so far away from home has been special, she said.
“It’s been a very invigorating and nurturing thing to find a Pacific Islander community here in Missoula. Not only for the practice of the dance, which is something that I love, but also just for the community,” she said.
Aside from the social component, the consistency of a routine has been vital for some members.
“I’ve been more driven to get out here and do Hula,” said Ben Borhegy, a sophomore at UM studying ecology and organismal biology. “It’s kept me sane. It’s like a ritual, and I love getting that time set aside to practice something I really love.”
Borhegy is not an islander. In that respect, he stood out a bit from the rest of the group of dancers. But, he said, that’s the point of the Pacific Islanders Club — to make everyone feel welcome and loved.
When Borhegy was a freshman, he stumbled into the Pacific Islanders at a club open-house at UM. He instantly felt at home. His first Hula class intensified that feeling of belonging.
“It kind of changed my life, honestly,” he said. “There was so much aloha, which is like love. You’ll see that today, at our class.”
The Pacific Islanders will host Hula classes every Monday this summer before the beginning of UM’s fall semester. Classes take place from 5:30-6:30 p.m. on campus, with exact location information subject to change. Information can be found on the club's Facebook page, University of Montana Pacific Islanders Club. The classes are free and open to everyone.
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