Leave your coconut bra at home

Hula classes check out the tradition beneath the stereotype

Katie Wilber

There was no denying it was February in Minnesota. Brisk winds howled past the Tapestry Folkdance Center, and the snow layered the sidewalk.

But inside felt a bit… tropical.

Todd Bierbrauer had brought his weekly touch of the islands to the Cities. He sat on the floor of the dance studio with a drum in his hands and an open songbook at his side. As he sang and drummed, eight dancers swirled their feet and hands in the movements of the hula.

Bierbrauer is the owner and instructor of ‘Halau Hula ‘Ka Hoku ‘Akau, or the Hula School of the Northern Star. He has taught hula dancing for longer than four years but first discovered it in 1993.

“My first thought was, admittedly, Why here?” he said with a laugh. “This is Minnesota, not Hawaii.”

Besides, hula dancing is just people shaking what their momma gave them in grass skirts and coconut bras.

Isn’t it?

Bierbrauer reluctantly went to a class and immediately observed the lack of grass skirts and coconut bras. He discovered instead that hula was an ancient tradition of storytelling ” a way to pass history through generations before there was a written language.

He continued to take classes, and eventually his mentor asked him to open a halau, or school. Bierbrauer still was hesitant.

“Who’d listen to a haole (a term for someone who’s not from Hawaii) when it comes to hula dancing?” he remembered thinking.

That was in October 2001. He now has a fairly consistent enrollment of 10 students, and he’s had anywhere from five to 30 students in a class.

For Bierbrauer and his students, hula has become an amalgam of exercise, culture and spirituality. Some dancers are from Hawaii and use the classes to keep up with their heritage, while others see it as a way to communicate the history of the Hawaiian people.

“Hula dancing is something to be shared,” Bierbrauer said. “It’s an important part of the Hawaiian culture.”

Two of Bierbrauer’s students, Mary Holmes and Caprice Ayau, are from Hawaii. Ayau helped Bierbrauer start the halau, while Holmes joined about a year ago.

“I wanted to be able to hold my culture near my heart,” Ayau said. “We’re a long way from Hawaii, and it’s nice to be with others who appreciate the culture.”

Holmes started hula dancing at an early age and continued through college. She moved to Minneapolis about 10 years ago and saw an ad for the halau while walking around Lake Harriet.

“I just missed dancing,” she said.

“Our mission is to portray the Hawaiian culture as closely as possible despite the distance,” Bierbrauer said, “and we want to continue to keep the traditional ideas alive.”