Tag Archives: Polynesian

Aloha Bluejays

February 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Creighton has long maintained a cross-cultural connection with Hawaii. The university considers the Central Pacific archipelago one of its top-10 recruiting states, and students from Hawaii have been flocking to this “Maui of the Midwest” for nearly a century.

The first Hawaiian student enrolled at Creighton University in 1924, long before the territory became a state (which eventually happened in 1959). Creighton started seeing increased Hawaiian enrollment after World War II in the 1940s, amid heightening racism toward people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, says Associate Director of Admissions Joe Bezousek.

While resentment lingered from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other U.S. military engagements in East Asia, Creighton intentionally rejected riding the wave of then-popular discrimination.

“Creighton has always followed the Jesuit value of being accepting and treating everyone with dignity and respect. So, Creighton kept our doors open and that was a big trigger moment,” Bezousek says.

Current students of Hawaiian heritage say the school does much to foster a culture of inclusion and supply resources necessary for Native and non-indigenous Hawaiians alike to continue being engaged with their culture while thousands of miles from home.

Ku‘uipo Lono is a student at Creighton and a participating member of Hui ‘O Hawai‘i, an on-campus Hawaiian organization. Lono’s favorite part of the Hawaiian club, and the centerpiece of the organization’s calendar, is the annual lu‘au.

According to Lono, lu‘au was first conceptualized in Hawaii as a celebration of life.

“Lu‘au was originally done for a baby’s first birthday,” Lono says. “When Western people came to Hawaii, they brought a lot of diseases with them, and so it was a big deal for a baby to live past one year.”

Today, the number of Native Hawaiians who continue on to post-secondary education remains low, Lono says, so leaving the island for college is a big deal. For Lono, leaving Hawaii was a matter of broadening her horizons, sharing Hawaiian culture, and in some ways, defending her traditional culture.

“There is a big controversial thing happening on the Big Island where the United States wants to build a big telescope on a mountain, and Native Hawaiians are protesting,” she says. “For some people, being Hawaiian is going up on the mountain and protesting—for others, being Hawaiian is getting an education and being part of the committee who decides whether or not to have the telescope built.”

Much like there is a distinction between Native Americans and non-indigenous American people born and raised in America, Lono says there is a cultural difference between Native Hawaiians and people who are simply from Hawaii. Creighton’s Hui ‘O Hawai‘i is inclusive of both groups.

“There are people who are not Hawaiian at all who participate,” Lono says. “A common thing you will hear people say is ‘I am Hawaiian at heart.’”

Sela Vili is a sophomore at Creighton. Although not of indigenous Hawaiian heritage, she is from Hawaii and played a lead role in a play performed at last year’s lu‘au. More than 1,000 people attended the 2016 event, which is inclusive to other Polynesian cultures, too, not just Hawaiian.

Vili says the celebration is different each year, and the food is always authentic.

“We have a food committee, and we bring down a chef from Hawaii,” Vili says. “I love the entertainment in the lu‘au. I love dancing in it, especially given that I have been dancing since the age of 5.”

Vili refers to the Hawaiian community on campus as her family away from home. She says Hawaii is very important to her, which drives a lot of her participation in the club.

“I want to be involved in the lu‘au so I can share my culture with everyone else,” Vili says. “It’s a way for me to keep in touch with home, and also a great way to meet other students that are from Hawaii.”

Hawaiian culture is based on the idea that you live off the land and work in the fields, Lono says, but going to college offers an opportunity for a different type of life. She admits there can be some resentment toward Westerners by Native Hawaiians, especially considering the legacy of colonization and forced acculturation.

“[I used to think] this is not fair. Why do we have to work to pay rent for land we already own,” Lono says. “My perspective changed when I came here. The same thing happened to the Mexicans and the Native Americans, and I think the best thing to do is not really accept it, but to learn about it, make a difference, and move forward from it.”

Lono is thankful for the opportunity to share her culture with the rest of Creighton’s diverse student population, and she praises the club’s approximately 250 members for caring enough about their culture to share with their peers and the general public of Omaha.

“Creighton recruits heavily from Hawaii, and it is nice having so many people from Hawaii so far away from home,” Lono says.

She laments the dearth of Hawaiian food in Omaha; however, the Hui ‘O Hawai‘i organization provides an essential group of friends who get together to cook authentic foods from home, in order to feel a little closer to the Aloha State—right here in Nebraska.

The 2017 Hui ‘O Hawai‘i Lu‘au takes place March 18 at Creighton University’s Kiewit Fitness Center. Doors open at 4 p.m., dinner begins at 5 p.m., and entertainment starts at 6 p.m. Tickets cost $20 general admission, $15 students, $12 children ages 4-12, free to ages 3 and under. Contact Lu‘au Chair Tiffany Lau at tiffanylau1@creighton.edu for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The Secret of the Shimmy

January 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Inhale. exhale.

The slow Middle Eastern music increases in tempo.

The ladies’ hips sway side to side in rapid repeat. All three wear black spandex pants and V-neck T-shirts. Scarves, loosely wrapped around their waists, accentuate their movements. Bells jingle in time with the rhythm of the beat.

“Don’t give away the secret,” Carol Wright warns as her hips pop. “If they want to know the secret to the shimmy, tell them to come and see Della.”

The other two women laugh as their torsos undulate. Wright closes her eyes in a losing-herself-to-the-music moment, hands on her rolling and rippling hips.

“Is this too fast?” instructor Della Bynum asks from the side of the room. She has been watching this improvisation for a while, a half-smile on her face, relishing the freedom and artistry of the belly dance.

“We will have to find out,” Wright says.

“This is where you just have fun exploring,” Bynum explains.

Anna Lewis, 22, struggles for a moment, “Which way should I go?” 

Lewis has been shaking her hips for about a year now. At 6 years old, she watched her mother and Della’s group perform for her Girl Scout troop. 

“My mom is re-inspired whenever she comes to visit and will always make sure she comes back to Della’s class,” Lewis says.

Bynum steps in to help Lewis and demonstrates a front and back roll to add to the dance. The women continue as a solid unit.

It isn’t the shimmy that is the secret, but it is this connection of women coming together to celebrate themselves and each other. Feeling that connection is one of the main reasons why Bynum stays in dance. Bynum, 67, believes belly dancing creates a bond regardless of age, ethnicity, or size.

bellydancingShe should know. She’s been dancing since she was 8 years old and aging hasn’t stopped her. It is a vivacious, beautiful, and uplifting experience.

“It makes you aware of your senses—how you see, hear,” Bynum believes.

Bynum began with traditional ballet, then shifted to modern dance. She moved from Baltimore at 19 to begin school at Creighton University. A business degree wasn’t important to Bynum. 

“Dance classes were my love,” she says. “But unless you are teaching dance, you are not assured a position to support yourself.”

She continued taking dance classes and studied ethnic forms of popular dances of the 1970s, including African, Polynesian, and belly dancing. In addition, she performed modern dance with the UNO Moving Company. In 1980, Bynum started teaching her first classes at the YWCA and continued to do so for the next 25 years. 

When Bynum retired seven years ago from her day job as a timekeeper for the Omaha Fire Department, she needed…well…something more.

“You need to move more as you age, not less. If you don’t move, you aren’t able to move as well,” Bynum believes.

“You should open up a studio,” a long-time friend and fellow dance instructor told her.

“Hmm…that’s what people do when they are young,” Bynum replied.

With some help from her friend, Bynum did the unthinkable by opening her first studio. After three years, Bynum realized the ceiling was too low for the wavy and slinky arm movements of belly dance. After searching, she discovered a spot in the Center Mall on 42nd Street. After that, it was just a matter of finding economical ways to create a studio.

Bynum teaches four days a week and her crew puts on performances for The Durham Museum, Omaha Performing Arts, Renaissance fairs, and other organizations. The women sew their own costumes for a variety of different styles including tribal, folkloric, and Oriental belly dancing. 

A six-year attendee, Michelle Widhalm, 50, says Bynum is holistic in her approach. It is emotional and spiritualistic.

Bynum’s mantra: breathe. 

“When I tell people I belly dance, it is interesting to see their reaction. Eyebrows raise,” Widhalm says. “Western culture sexualized the dance. For me, it is about the female connection.”

Widhalm was surprised the older generation seemed more open to the idea, commenting only on how it must be a good form of exercise. In fact, a 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported social dancing lowered the risk of dementia in the elderly by 76 percent—more than reading. It also reduces stress, releases serotonin, and improves overall physical health.

Bynum’s parents passed away in their 50s, which has motivated her to keep exercising. If someone likes it, he/she will keep active. Belly dancing is multi-generational. 

“It’s more of an ageless environment,” Bynum says.

Her oldest client started when she was 80 and quit at 90 due to arthritis.

When Shakira entered the scene in the 2000s, shaking those hips that don’t lie, the belly dancing industry boomed.

So what about those ripped abs?

“I had those when I was young,” Bynum says tapping her black-stockinged feet on the floor to the beat of the music. “But it isn’t about that for me anymore.”

Bynum steps in the front of the class in black leggings with a bright orange scarf tied to her waist, a dark blue shirt, and a whole lot of confidence.

Bynum works with the three women on choreographed moves based on an old saying she modified. 

Walk forward, beauty before us.

Walk backward, beauty behind us.

It continues with the side, upward, and downward until the climax.

Beauty within us.

Wright squeals at the end in time with the music, arms raised, and all of them laugh together. 

Oh, and the secret to that shimmy?

Bending the knees, breathing, and relaxing.

Visit delladancing.com for more information.