My daughter Kylee tans beautifully. Even after a prolonged winter with ton of snow, after a day in the sun she looks like she’s been living at the beach. However, when she recently informed me that “I really don’t want to get too tanned this year – maybe just a little,” I started worrying. The “Wonder Years” of growing up are hard enough but once you start thinking that you “aren’t like everyone else,” life can get a little tougher. It’s funny how in our ‘younger years’ we do everything we can to be like ‘the norm’ and it isn’t until later in life that we truly appreciate our culture and heritage.
On of the tools in my arsenal is the Living Legends – a world renowned performing group out of Brigham Young University in Utah that is dedicated to preserving and sharing the ancient cultures of the Americas and the Pacific Islands. According to their website the “Living Legends has performed throughout the United States and in more than 45 foreign countries. Featured on national TV in China, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, it represented the United States at the 1992 World’s Fair in Seville, Spain and at the 1991 German-American Volksfest in Berlin.”
I’ve known a number of individuals who have danced in the Living Legends and have seen them perform in Utah, California, and in Hamamatsu, Japan. One of Kylee’s aunties – Alyssa Souza is currently a student at BYU and was a performer for the Living Legends. I asked Alyssa about her experience with the Living Legends and, thinking about Kylee’s recent question, how she’s grown to appreciate her culture. Here’s Alyssa’s response:
“When I was younger, I was involved in a lot of things that kept me active and that kept me in touch with my roots. One of those activities was hula. I am proud to be Hawaiian and I love to dance hula. Growing up, I always wanted to be a beautiful hula dancer just like my mom and sister. However, as I got older and became involved with different activities, I needed to prioritize what I wanted to do. When it came down to it, hula is what I sacrificed. I never thought I would get the chance to return to hula, but gratefully, my opportunity came at the most unlikeliest of places.
“During my senior year of high school, my college of choice was Brigham Young University, located in Provo, Utah. Not exactly a diverse population of students but I applied with the hope that I could find a place where I belonged on campus. Before the start of my junior year, I auditioned for the Living Legends in their Polynesian Section. I felt so blessed to have found my name on that final cast list. Here was my chance to return to what I thought I left behind years ago.
“Living Legends took me to places where I could dance and share my culture that I love so much. We traveled to Alaska, Washington, Idaho and Oregon but the most exotic destination was Russia. It really is a beautiful country with wonderful people, a rich culture and a fascinating history.
“When we arrived, I realized that most people don’t know what a “Polynesian” is and it was incredibly gratifying that after seeing our show, they couldn’t get enough of us. After every show we went out into the audience to greet them. We couldn’t understand each other’s language, but a smile is a universal symbol. We could tell that our show was something they had never seen before but was something they truly loved and connected with. I even met a young woman who spoke some English and we’ve become great pen pals. She told me that she has learned some hula moves and has looked for Hawaiian music online. She continues to research more about Hawaii and the other cultures in the Living Legends.
“It was a wonderful experience to share hula and my culture again. I didn’t simply throw on a grass skirt and coconuts and wave my arms side to side in order to do it in your stereotypical “tourist-y” hula dance, this was a chance to share my real culture. For me, dancing hula means keeping something alive that is fading so fast. Our Hawaiian Culture is incredibly deep and original and I got to share more of the original dances versus what you’d see at a typical luau.
The Hawaiian Language is also beautiful with meaning that is far more profound. In order to express that, hula motions must have depth and meaning as well. Dancing hula has always been real and true for me and something more than what is glamourized by Hollywood and Elvis. So even though I’m away from the islands, I can still do my part to protect it and share it.”
Alyssa has shared her culture with people from all over the world. However, I am grateful that she helped a little 8 year old smile and appreciate her own culture. As a dad, I couldn’t help but smile watching how excited Kylee was after the performance. Thanks Alyssa from all of us!
To find out more about Living Legends please visit their website. Alyssa is originally from Maui Hawaii and is finishing her studies at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. We wish Alyssa well in her future endeavors.