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Some may see hula as just a dance, but to Lisa Chang and her students it is an art form

by: JOHN LARIVIERE, Lisa Chang demonstrates the proper arm movements to the intermediate hula class during their warm-up routine on Sunday night.

ALOHA - 'E malama i ka hana no'eau Hawai'i a me ka hula.'

What's wrong, don't speak Hawaiian?

Good thing Lisa Chang does.

Chang, who owns and runs the Hula Halau 'Ohana Holo'oko'a ('school of hula where everyone is family'), has been teaching people of all ages how to hula dance for about eight years now. Though she is not Hawaiian, she has been to the Islands many times and is very familiar with both the language and the culture that accompany the dances she teaches.

'It is important to have visited the places that the chants and songs are about so you can really express what the different sights, plants, flowers, birds, scents, winds, rains, tides look and feel like in each location,' she said.

Chang first became involved with hula during college. As a pharmacy student at Oregon State University, her best friend convinced her to go to a Hawaii Club meeting; from there she was hooked. Chang moved to California a few years after graduation to study with a Kumu Hula (a person who has undergone years of extensive training and is qualified to teach hula), and from 1988 to 1994 she spent countless hours learning and relearning the moves of the ancient dance.

'Hula is not easy to do,' she said. 'And to do it beautifully takes a lot of dedication and practice.'

After moving back to Oregon, Chang said people asked her to teach them what she knew. What began as informal instruction out of her garage blossomed into much more when Chang began renting space from Bally's Total Fitness in Aloha in 2003.

Since that time she has seen a number of students take the first steps to learning hula by signing up for one of the classes she offers throughout the week, with the majority of them being women. While Chang said hula is not the easiest thing to learn, the key thing for a student to remember is the importance of practice.

'To be really good, it just depends on what you put in it,' Chang said. 'The most difficult part about teaching is when my students do not practice and I have to keep teaching the same dances over and over again. I have made it very clear that class not practice, and practice needs to be done at home so we can all move forward together. Everyone is getting a lot better about that.'

An additional commitment required of Chang's students is the occasional public performance. She said her entire hula halau ('hula school') takes part in the Rose Festival, and the more experienced dancers also participate in select other events.

Right now Chang said she has a total of about 50 students in her hula halau; this is divided up between the beginner, intermediate and advanced classes for adults, and the classes for ages 3 to 6 and 6- to 12-year-olds.

A couple of assistants also help her lead the classes.

One of the most important things Chang tells students when learning to dance is to concentrate on their feet, which she said will help them learn the hula basics before adding in the arm movements. She also invites prospective students to come and watch a class before making any sort of commitment.

Chang said in the past year or so there has been an increased interest in hula dancing and that a new school recently opened up in Gresham. This joins the ones already established in Milwaukie, Vancouver and Scappoose. As a part of the shared hula community, Chang said she and the other teachers are not competitive and like to work together to build interest in the dance. They also spend time keeping students abreast of some of the rules that must be followed.

'As a teacher, I have to educate my students,' she said. 'There are certain standards. When you decide you would rather be in someone else's hula halau, you need to ask permission to leave.'

Something else that Chang stresses to her students is being supportive of one another.

'It's like a big family,' she said. 'We take care of each other.'

And by the way, 'E malama i ka hana no'eau Hawai'i a me ka hula' means 'to preserve the Hawaiian culture and the art of hula'; Chang said this is the halau philosophy.

And now you do speak Hawaiian. Well, sort of.

For those interested in learning more about Chang and her hula halau, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Chang said she accepts new students in her adult classes the first week of every month, and children are welcome to join her age-appropriate classes at any time.