Debbie White brings a different kind of island flair with hula classes.
Palm trees rustled in the breeze and grass skirts twirled as a group of students practiced hula to the soft sounds of Hawaiian music. It was a scene you might expect to find in Honolulu.
But instead of the island of Oahu, this class took place on Longboat Key.
Debbie White, a born-and-raised Hawaiian woman and now Longboat Key resident, has been leading students in hula classes for the Paradise Center since the beginning of November. She’s garnered a good following when the weather is nice, hosting over a dozen students just before Thanksgiving. One woman brought her granddaughter in for class when she was in town, and they both took to it quickly.
“Over Thanksgiving we got our grass skirts on and did a dance for the whole family,” Deb McGillen said.
White takes her students through a series of slow, gentle hand and foot movements, mimicking waves, gathering seaweed and the sun. She encourages her students to come up with their own moves, their own ways of communicating through hula. When the group puts their movements together to dance to the music, there’s not a lot of stumbling or missed moves despite a short practice time. Students just go with the flow.
“It allows you to be creative,” White said. “And with the Hawaiian music, it’s so relaxing. You’re going to feel a lot of joy.”
White lived in the 50th state until about three years ago, when her husband decided to retire. She was a kindergarten teacher and also led cheerleading at a school in Honolulu. Hula has always been part of her life, ever since she danced with her cousins as a child.
“When we got together, we would dance and they would teach me hula,” White said. “When I had children I had two girls, (and) I sent them to hula when they were 4 and 6 years old. And they've had a lot of fun with that.”
Every student of White’s got some sort of hula experience along the way, including the kindergarteners, who got time to move during their school days. She taught at Princess Victoria Ka’iulani Elementary School, named for the last heir apparent to the Hawaiian throne, and every year on her birthday they would celebrate Ka’iulani Day. White taught her cheerleaders hula for the occasion.
“As a mom, you're just so used to helping, so teaching is really easy,” White said. “It starts to come naturally, just sharing what you know with others and just doing step by step to make it easy to pick up. You go with hand motions first, and then you have the feet. With children, that's always really easy. You want to start off with slow hand motions, and get the feet and put it together.”
That same philosophy applies when teaching the adults at the Paradise Center — it’s just a group of big kids. White brings a basket of colorful grass skirts and leis for her students to wear to get into the hula mood as they build their dances with hands and feet. The joy is infectious — a class on Nov. 30 got applause from the neighboring post office parking lot.
“She reminds us to smile more and that’s so good for your health,” McGillen said.
White is outspoken about the benefits of hula as exercise for mind and body. It’s a gentle flow, not too strenuous on any joints, and pairing the motions all together forces you to keep your mind focused and on task.
“It doesn't even feel like exercise, but it's a great form of exercise,” White said. “It’s just beautiful.”
To get into the holiday spirit, White has been ending class with some festive tunes like “White Christmas” and the Hawaiian Christmas song “Mele Kalikimaka,” which she had her students practice saying before they began dancing.
“I want to put in a few songs that are in Hawaiian so that they can learn a little bit of the Hawaiian language, a little bit about the culture,” White said. “It’s really nice that I get to share a little bit about where I'm from, and my culture coming from Hawaii with other people.”
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