Carol Antonsen with an Ipu Heke

A taste of the Islands

Aldergrove dance studio brings Polynesian culture to Langley

Amid the quaint fields and barns of the Antonsen family’s third generation dairy farm in Aldergrove, sounds of the Hawaiian Islands emerge.

The steady drum of an Ipu Heke flows out of the basement of the farmhouse, followed by a patter of bare feet dancing along.

Seated on the hardwood floor, Carol Antonsen plays the traditional Hawaiian double-gourd instrument while calling out “five, six, seven, eight,” to her young dancing students.

This is the 17th year Antonsen has taught Polynesian dancing from her home studio, Hälau Hula O Ka Poli Mehana `O Lehua.

Translating to “the warmth of the lehua (a Hawaiian flower) of the heart,” her students learn the dancing and culture behind traditional Hawaiian, Tahitian and New Zealand music.

“It’s about honouring their cultures,” Antonsen said.

“If we were to have somebody watch us, we would want them to go ‘wow, they’re doing an amazing job, they’re really keeping our culture alive.’”

With a focus on making things authentic, the students — who range in age from three to mid-60s — learn more than dance moves. They are taught the languages, the meanings of the songs, the geography and even local flowers and shells.

Everything from the lyrics sung to the colours of the costumes worn help to tell the stories behind the songs.

“You want to connect to your song,” Antonsen explained.

“There’s lots of beautiful Hulas that are written, and on the surface they are very poetic and they sound very nice, but actually there’s a hidden meaning.”

As part of the tradition, Antonsen researches the songs to find their original meanings — and sometimes — gets to ask the composers themselves.

“There was a really pretty song that I really loved and I didn’t know for a long time that it was actually an engagement present that this guy wrote for his wife,” she recalled.

“So when I found that out, it meant a lot more to me. I actually met him and his wife and I thought, ‘wow, that was a very beautiful thing,’ and I had the honour to dance that song.”

It’s a culture of respect that Antonsen has been immersed in since she began Hula at the age of eight.

“You always respect your elders, and that’s instilled in all of our dancers — to always ask for things and always give thanks for things and always ask permission,” she said.

“A big part of Hula is asking for things.”

This came into play when Antonsen opened her own dance studio. Before teaching any classes, she went back to her own instructor for permission, which is Hawaiian protocol, she said.

Beginning with a small group of students, her studio quickly grew, leading to an invite to compete in Hawaii — something Antonsen did not feel prepared for.

“When you do a competition in Hawaii, it’s huge,” she said.

“They expect so much of you, and you have to have fresh flowers and live music, and we didn’t have musicians or anything.”

Antonsen turned to an instructor from Hawaii for help. Partnering with the Lauakea Foundation, the group not only got to compete in Hawaii, they also were invited to join the organization.

Antonsen’s studio is now one of nearly 20 in the organization that are learning authentic, traditional dancing.

“It’s a wonderful thing because we have so much amazing support,” she said.

“We are able to connect with locals. They can take us to the places where these dances come from, and they connect us with musicians and composers so we can understand more about the dances.

“It’s really a very unique partnership. It’s brought our group totally to a new level in what we do.”

Today, Antonsen’s focus has moved away from competing, and more towards inclusion and self-awareness.

“People say, ‘what is it about Hula that is just so special?’ It’s very healing, it’s something you do for yourself that makes you feel so good inside.

“Anybody of any size or race can dance. Even if you have a bad leg, there’s Hulas you can do sitting in a chair. It’s so inclusive, it’s meant to be shared and given.”

There’s also a special connection between Langley and Hawaii that dates back nearly 200 years.

Many of the workers at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Langley post in the 1800’s were from Hawaii, and several of these workers are buried in the pioneer cemetery beside St. George’s Anglican Church.

“It is pretty unique to have a group that has that kind of connection to the Islands, yet being so far away,” Antonsen said.

“It’s really special.”

This Saturday, Nov. 7, the studio is bringing a bit of the Islands back to the Fort with a special recital.

Taking place at the Chief Seapass Theatre at 2 p.m., the students are performing 29 routines to Hawaiian Hula, Tahitian Aparima (the kiss of the hands) and Otea (a drum dance), and New Zealand Poi.

Tickets are available at the door or at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1362398.

For more information, visit www.hulainbc.com.

Photos by Miranda Gathercole. From top: Young dancers  practice Otea, a Tahitian drum dance; Carol Antonsen plays an Ipu Heke for her students.