Photo by Eric Miyasato
Hawaiʻi is home for me. For nearly 11 years, I’ve been living in a culture that resonates with me. I lived most of my life in communities where being the only Asian kid was normal but my parents raised me in a home where being kind and selfless was customary. Embracing everyone and welcoming them into your home was the norm. After I graduated college, I wanted to move. I didn’t know where, but I knew I didn’t feel grounded enough to stay. My recent chance meeting with Kumu Lauren Kanoelani Chang Williams reminded me of my journey of finding a “sense of place”.
It’s Tuesday evening and wahine (women) from all over the island of Oʻahu have gathered at a community space in Nuʻuanu. Mele (chants or songs) and warm smiles fill the open the room. They are eager to learn native Hawaiian traditions and knowledge from their kumu hula (dance teacher). “It’s my kuleana (responsibility) to pass down the ‘ike (knowledge) from my kumu and continue the legacy of our culture,” says Lauren, a Punahou graduate and University of Hawaiʻi alumna.
The eldest of two siblings, Lauren was born in Portland and moved to Hawaiʻi at the age of three. She has been dancing hula since kindergarten, studying under Kumu Hula Leimomi I Maldonado (Aunty Lei) for more than 20 years. “I thought I wanted to be a famous hula dancer,” Lauren recalls with a chuckle. In 2009, she completed a year-long rigorous training to ʻūniki (graduate) as a kumu hula. Her dedication along with Aunty Lei’s teachings helped Lauren earn this title of mastery. Kumu hula is a lifelong commitment to the hula tradition. She will forever have responsibilities towards her kumu hula’s teachings and to her own students, and has become a priceless part of the preservation of hula.
A year passed before she entertained the idea of starting her own hālau. “I felt it was time to go on my own,” says Lauren. However, this idea did not initially go over well with her kumu. “I wonder if Aunty Lei was not ready to release me and felt hurt that I would leave her hālau. She eventually gave me her blessing but our relationship has never been the same. I constantly think about this,” she explains.
Since 2010, Lauren has been focused on carrying out her responsibilities as kumu by sharing her knowledge of hula ʻōlapa (dance accompanied by chanting and drumming on a gourd drum), ʻoli (chanting), and modern styles of hula such as Hapa Haole (westernized hula) through Hālau Na Pua Hala Kūnou i ke Kai. This space has given her the creative direction to choreograph the balance between tradition and hula’s adaptions to the modern world. “Hula is a living art form. A living language. It has always evolved to accommodate changing times,” she says.
Lauren does not consider herself to be a strict kumu hula. Her intention is to not only provide her students a connection to the culture, but to enjoy hula! She does this by making hula accessible and her teachings palatable. After giving birth to her son, she created a “Mommy and Me” keiki class and a baby wearing hula class so new mothers can bring their newborns to experience and continue hula. “It feeds my heart to teach hula,” says Lauren.
For the past six months, Lauren and her husband, Luke, have been managing their new business venture – owning The Wedding Café, a local wedding resource center. Like Lauren’s hālau, The Wedding Café is a safe place for families, including the business vendors they work with. Located in Honolulu’s Ward Warehouse shopping center, The Wedding Café is a support system. “We don’t want anyone to feel like they are struggling alone,” says Lauren. “Creating this sense of place encourages people to interact meaningfully and enjoy the experience.”
This journey of being small business owners has brought Lauren and Luke closer together. Through this process, they learned to be intentional in how they live their life. Lauren shares with me, “Choose to do things that bring you joy.”