Story by Liza Simon
Photos by Elyse Butler
The world’s first and only college degree program in hula unfolds inside a Quonset hut, a relic of the Islands’ involvement in World War II. This is just fine with Professor Taupouri Tangaro, who directs the program at Hawai‘i Community College in Hilo. He doesn’t mind the frequent rat-a-tat of rain on the corrugated tin roof. That’s Hilo’s music, he laughs, referring to the town’s notoriously wet weather.
The amiable educator, who possesses a doctorate of philosophy and sports a trendy peroxided coif, is quite happy teaching Hawaiian dance in a space once reserved for military ops. When the university made several offers to build “real classrooms” to house the hula studies program, Tangaro replied that the Quonset hut was better because it had the open floor space of a true halau. Still, they persisted. They would replace the old cylindrical edifice if Tangaro would just give the okay. Instead he gave his final answer: “A lot of beauty can come out of ugly things. You have to believe in the power of transformation. Just trust me!”
In fact, it’s been “a long, long journey of trust,” Tangaro will explain later today. After ten years of effort by a team of indigenous scholars and a maze-like process of approvals, Hawai‘i Community College now offers four semesters leading to an Associate in Applied Science degree in hula. Hula had long been available elsewhere on campus: practice it as an elective in the music department, read and write about it in Hawaiian studies. But to just dance hula all the way to a college degree? There’s only one place in the world to do it, and that’s in Hilo.