Hula teacher Christinia Pualani Lee broke her hip a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday. But that didn’t keep her from doing the hula at her birthday party. She did the Hawaiian dance from her wheelchair.
Now at 101, the Encinitas great great-grandmother has shed the wheelchair and almost the walker, and continues to lead Hawaiian dance classes twice a week at the Carlsbad Senior Center, where there is a wait list for her beginner’s class. She’s been teaching hula at the center for nearly 25 years and is known as “the hula lady.”
“This is my life; I can’t stop,” Lee said.
For her, the dance is more than physical; it is spiritual. And that is what she wants to impart to her students, who typically range in age from their early 50s to 90s.
“It has to come from the heart,” Lee said. “I want to teach the real Hula hulau, the folk dance of Hawaii. I think of it as story telling. It tells the history of the islands, royalty, love affairs.”
At a recent class, Lee coached her students as their arms swayed and their bright, floral dresses whirled to the Hawaiian melodies, while they moved barefoot across the floor, smiling. “When a dancer smiles, reflecting from her heart and soul, the dance is beautiful to behold,” Lee said. She urged them to put their body and soul into it and show what the words mean by moving arms, head, hips and eyes.
The alohoa spirit comes through in their dance and camaraderie.
“The spirit here is very loving, it’s the spirit of Hawaii,” said Estee Cooper, 92, who was among the first students in the class 24 years ago and still dances without a cane.
Lee, who is a volunteer, started the class in spring of 1995 when she was in her late 70s, about six months after her husband died of cancer. It helped her get through. She wants to help women in the class going through grief or health problems.
“We have a moment of silence and we think of those people and send love. There is healing in that,” Lee said. “I’ve seen it at work and it shakes me up. It is not from us. It is from a higher power working through us.”
There is often a get well or sympathy card set out on the table in front of the room for everyone to sign. “The class is like a family — ohana. It’s the Hawaiian aloha spirit we have,” said Lois Serrin, who joined 18 years ago.
“Christinia has cultivated a true sisterhood among her students. The group is very cohesive, yet inclusive of new students,” said Valerie Fisher, longtime activities coordinator at the Carlsbad Senior Center. “She is the perfect embodiment of the Aloha Spirit.”
She is known to some as kumu Christinia Pualani Maluhiamaikeakua Lee. Maluhiamaikeakua means blessings from God.
Lee began her career teaching modern dance at UCLA in the early 1940s after earning a bachelor’s degree in physical education and dance. She performed with modern dancer Myra Kinch in the 1940s.
She took her first formal hula lessons during a visit to Hawaii in her 30s. When she watched the women dancing in true Hawaiian style, it was so beautiful, she said it made her cry.
She gave her first hula lessons at middle schools in Los Angeles where she was teaching. Over the years, she has taught hula to thousands of students from teens to senior citizens.
“She is amazing, nothing can stop her. She sets goals and reaches them, whether it’s walking a long distance or organizing a big dance show,” said student Deborah Katz.
The group will perform at several retirement communities in August and is slated to give a big show Dec. 11 at the Carlsbad Senior Center.
“I don’t feel like 101,” Lee said.
Here’s Lee’s list of top 10 secrets to a long, happy life:
1. LOVE. Spread the alchemy of love in all directions. Smile.
2. BE POSITIVE. Creates healing energy. When negative, count your blessings, give thanks and get over it.
3. BALANCE WORK, RECREATION, WITH THE SPIRITUAL.
4. BE NON-JUDGING.
5. BE FORGIVING.
6. BE CREATIVE. With color, write something, draw, sing, plant something.
7. MOVE. Yoga, exercise, dance, free movement.
8. TEND TO YOUR HEALTH. Eat and drink wisely.
9. SERVE OTHERS.
10. CHANGE THE I, I, I TO YOU, YOU, YOU.
— Linda McIntosh is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune