Born in Laupahoehoe on the Hamakua (Breath of the Ancestors) Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, I was the first child of five for Robert Naoyuki and Margaret Mitsuko (Tahara) Tanoue. I am 4th generation (yonsei) Japanese American on my mother’s side of the family and third generation (sansei) on my father’s side.
My maternal roots are traced to family in Japan that for 600 years took care of a Shinto Shrine in Hiroshima. They were also rice farmers. Perhaps this explains my love of nature in general, but especially the reverence I hold for Hawaiian cultural beliefs, steeped in respect for the sacredness of nature, and all the many gods and goddesses that inhabit the plants, animals, land, mountains, and ocean.
My paternal roots are traced to a family of doctors and samurai from Kumamoto, Japan.
Both of my grandfathers decided to leave their homes in Japan, and the expectations of their families, to come to Hawaii for new opportunities. Many times I have felt that streak of courage and determination to explore the unknown that surely ran in their veins. Maybe this is why I currently live in Chicago, Illinois, far from the ‘aina that I know and love.
Hula: Hula has been a special gift in my life. I asked to take lessons when I was 6 and studied with Louise Beamer for a couple of years in the Paauilo Odaisan (Shingon Temple) basement. We danced on lauhala mats to Mrs. Beamer’s singing and strumming on a ukulele.
I still remember that my very first hula was “To you Sweetheart, Aloha”, then “Singing Bamboo”, followed by “Kealoha.” I also remember the “Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai’ and ‘Pupu Hinuhinu.” I stayed with Mrs. Beamer for two years and learned 18 hulas according to hula sheets that my mother saved for me.
In college, I danced the summer of 1971 with Kumu Hula George Naope. He had an upstairs studio in downtown Hilo. I remember the class was small. Just a few of us dancing in his studio with an open window that let in the cool humid air. He taught us Kaulilua. He chanted and danced in the front of the room as a mirror for us.
After college, I spent the next 12 years in Portland, Oregon, working at a food bank. I found Newton Ka’onohi Hitchcock from Kauai there and danced kahiko with him for a couple of years. He told stories of himself as a young boy - dancing hula on tour boats going up the Wailua River. He was a big Hawaiian and I loved his resonant chanting. I still remember dancing to his mesmerizing Maika’i Kauai.
When I moved back home to the Big Island in 1988, I was lucky to find Kumu Hula Michael Pili Pang just 5 minutes from my home in Waimea and his young Halau Hula Ka No’eau. That began a wonderful journey of learning to be a student in a halau under the direction of a Kumu Hula.
The journey began with an aspiration to learn the beautiful chant and dance form and then came the many hours of dedicated practice: alone and with my kumu and hula sisters. I also spent many hours picking and making lei; making costumes and implements; doing research and listening to kupuna; and, of course, dancing in many performances. All of this was under the watchful direction of my kumu.
Highlights of those years:
- The 1989 King Kamehameha Hula Competition was my first competition. It was very exciting when we took third place in the Hula Kahiko for our Kalalea, a hula noho and hula ‘uli ‘uli for Queen Emma. This was the beginning of many awards for the halau.
- We collaborated with two ballet companies: Los Angeles Chamber Ballet (1994) and the Ballet Concerto de Puerto Rico(1995).
- Pittsburgh based modern dance company Dance Alloy came to Waimea for a one month residency in early 1997. They collaborated with the halau on a dance piece called ‘Ike: Body of Knowledge, based on the first 125 lines of the Kumulipo. We performed that program to a standing ovation at the Hawai'i Preparatory Academy's Gates Auditorium in Waimea and then at the Byham Theatre in Pittsburgh.
Jane Vranish, a dance critic then for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said this about ‘Ike in her review of the Byham performance:
…It wasn’t just the Alloy singing and doing the hula or the Halau embracing modern dance that was so intriguing. It was the respect for an ancient tradition and transporting it to the present with its spiritual dignity still intact. Maybe that was the voyage that was intimated, and we were all taken for a beautiful and memorable ride.
We also presented in the performance, a section on traditional hula entitled Pa Ka Na’au: To Feel Within. The old Hawaiians believed that all of the thoughts and actions of the Hawaiians generated from the guts, the na’au. Vranish said this about that section:
Choreographer Michael Pili Pang and his ensemble of 11 women brought “Pa Ka Na’au,” a watercolor array of hulas and chants that depicted such things as a greeting, a walk in the rain and an apology. This was as pure as folk-art gets, whether it be an Appalachian quilt or an Oklahoma fiddling contest. …But one particular song transition involved overlapping melodies, as complex as any Charles Ives piece. And the artistry involved in conveying the rich mix of emotions involved a subtle touch as intricate as homespun lace.
After dancing 12 years under Michael’s tutelage, I graduated as an ‘Olapa (Dancer) in 1994, an ‘Olapa/Ho’opa’a (Keeper of the Chants) in 1996 and a Kumu Hula (Master Teacher of the Hula), in June 2000.
Healing: Healing and Hula are two sides of the same coin. The patron goddess of Hula is Hi’iakaikapoliopele, the youngest sister of the fire goddess, Pele. It is Hi’iaka who makes the green plants to grow on the fresh lava flows that Pele has created. Hi’iaka is skilled in the arts of healing with herbs, chanting and massage as well as the hula which she learned from her best friend, the mortal woman Hopoe.
Kumu June has studied different spiritual healing arts. Click here to read more about Kumu June's healing practices.
Non-profit Work: I have spent most of my career, 33 years working with nonprofit organizations. The majority of those years have been with food banks in Oregon, Hawaii and most recently in Chicago with the national food bank organization, Feeding America. I was also involved in grants administration, working with USA for Africa and the Hawaii Community Foundation. I co-founded the Zen Center of Hawaii, the Zen Life and Meditation Center and have begun my hula school, Halau i Ka Pono.
I have been dancing hula for 30 years. I moved to Oak Park two years ago. I cannot believe how blessed we are to have a kumu (teacher) here who is so well trained and, perhaps even more rare, carries true aloha - respect, compassion, patience and appreciation of souls, as well as a bond with the land.
Cynthia Ohata MD, Oak Park, Illinois
I've known Kumu June for several years now, and have studied hula with her consistently over the past several months. I've also attended several hula events at Halau I Ka Pono, and it is my experience that the emphasis is on keeping the Hawaiian culture alive, and in particular, Kumu June's hula lineage through her kumu, Michael Pang.
Her style of teaching is gentle and encouraging. She is very good at breaking down the basic steps, so they are easy to learn. Her corrections are exacting, but are given with aloha, and very often with humor. I once observed her working with a guest student who had Alzheimers. Kumu June's gentle way of teaching someone who had challenges processing information made it an enjoyable class for all of us.
Most importantly, Kumu June's dedication and love of hula shines through all her teaching.
Lisa Kinolau Alamar, Elmwood Park, IL