My grandmother, a beautiful cave dancer.

Hula runs in my blood. When my dad saw my grandmother Becky dancing hula one night in a dance hall, armed with her ukulele, mu’u mu’u and beautiful smile, he fell in love. She passed on her grace to my mother, who is also a beautiful hula dancer, and the story continues.

I grew up on the island of O’ahu in Hawaii. Like any local girl, I started hula lessons at a young age – for me it was 5 years old – and continued all the way up until I moved to California when I was 15 years old. For a decade, I toured the island with my halau (group) and danced for the audience at Waikiki Beach, Ala Moana Mall, and the Shorerider Hotel – iconic landmarks visited by visitors. We loved giving tourists our lei after a show.

Even as little girls, we were confident and had a purpose. We grew up learning about our culture and identity through the way our ancestors told stories. We sang in Hawaiian words that we probably did not even know in English yet. We were tied up and looking back, it’s really amazing to me how dedicated we were at such a young age. We were taught by our hula kumu (teacher) that when we dance, we channel the spirit of the person we are talking about. Back then, it gave me goosebumps. I really felt a presence every time I danced.

My mother around my age (24) is getting ready to dance hula for guests.

As graceful and fluid as hula dancers make their movements appear, hula is an extremely demanding art form. We spent countless hours perfecting our ami, with our hips swaying, knees bent low, shoulders completely still and chopped up with pride. As I got older and went through growth traces, I always had a thick layer of muscle around my legs. This is the trademark of any cave dancer: our bodies are trained to be powerful and hold us through all our dances without faltering.

Because of this, I always felt strong. I think the hula was crucial to shaping my body image. I loved my legs because I carried myself through the jungles and mountains of Hawaii and kicked hard through the ocean as I surfed. Of course, I also had insecurities – especially when my teenage mind became convinced that my muscular thighs did not look so cute in skinny jeans. But I felt grounded when I danced and I always went back to the hula to make peace with how I looked.

Only when I stopped dancing and moved to California at. 15, I began to notice that my self-confidence was taking a turn. My insecurity had grown since I learned about the move. I had never moved away from my childhood home or left the friends I had had since elementary school. I began to retreat to a very dark place in my mind far from the joy I experienced when I danced hula.

I was lucky that I moved to such a beautiful place. Humboldt County was its own kind of paradise, completely lush with redwoods and stunning coastlines. The air is always cool, even in the summer, so most people wore jeans or tights with jackets all year round. In the midst of my leap of confidence, I absolutely shot at how I looked in skinny jeans and refused to wear them. I no longer used my legs to dance and carry myself through performances. I no longer saw the beautiful, proud dancer in the mirror associated with her culture.

Without the vital connection to my Hawaiian culture, I lost sight of my identity and all the trust I had spent years building.

Instead, I resorted to diets I found online, with calorie limits far too low for someone who was going through one of the biggest growth tracks in their lives. I was hyper-awake about what I was eating and barely exercising. My body did the opposite of thriving – it weakened, and even though the numbers on the scale were the lowest I had seen, my confidence continued to sink even lower. Without the vital connection to my Hawaiian culture, I lost sight of my identity and all the trust I had spent years building. More than a year passed – until one day a light finally appeared.

When I was a junior, a Samoan classmate moved to the city. We were instantly connected over our mutual Pacific Islander background, and she founded our high school’s first Polynesian cultural club. I joined and for the first time this year I rediscovered the joy of dancing. We performed at school meetings and theaters around town, and I began to regain that confidence. When Michelle moved away last year, I became president. My friends stayed at the club and I was able to share my love for my culture through the dances I taught them.

My body noticed the difference. As I reconnected with my culture, my heart became stronger and I left behind fad diets and lack of exercise for good. Now my body and spirit had to be fit and strong not only to carry me but also to lead my new halau.

Me dancing for my brother's wedding.

Me at my brother’s wedding and dedicated a hula to him and his wife.

When I went to college, I danced a few more times here and there: to my brother’s wedding, to my host family in Japan, to parties, and when a friend was curious and wanted to learn. Every time I went through a challenging time and felt like I was being kicked off my feet, I would dance a number in my dorm room, work or wherever I was, just to ground myself and return to the safe, empowering place.

This month, for the first time in so many years, I joined an official hula halau in San Diego to get back to dancing consistently. I would return to the discipline of attending lessons and continuing to learn.

Our first exercise honestly kicked my ass. We trained as athletes, all with our pa’u skirts. I deeply regretted going to a hot yoga class that morning because my thighs screamed at me halfway through the hula exercise and my shoulders could barely muster another pushup. But my body, remembering all the known movements and demanding the movements, carried me through. And looking at myself in the mirror – surrounded by strong, confident women, all sweating, focused and filled with joy at dancing together – I felt the overflow of appreciation for my culture and for how beautiful I felt in that moment. The beauty I could only feel by connecting with my Hawaiian heritage.

Through the hula, I was able to build a lasting and loving relationship with my Hawaiian identity. I am so happy to dance again and will always be grateful for my culture to make me see a beautiful reflection of myself in the mirror now. Someone who is strong, proud and full of aloha.

Image source: Chesiree Cats