Deciding to teach hula at Vassar for the first time last semester, Professor of Art History Wendy Ikemoto was nervous. “I thought, I don’t know how this is going to be received. I’m so far away from home, I don’t even know if people know what hula is.”
Ikemoto grew up in Honolulu where hula was an integral part of the culture. “My aunt danced for many, many years and so my sister and I took lessons when we were very little,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I ever really developed an interest in it, hula was always this presence.”
Initially, she received mixed initial reactions about teaching a hula class. “I got comments, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of it, but I don’t really know what it is,’ or people were sort of afraid to pronounce the word because they thought they might mispronounce it,” she described.
Hula, to Ikemoto, is simply another expression of her expertise in American art history. “We’re talking about a preforming art, and so [hula] is just another art form. I definitely don’t see them as distinct.” She added, “Ostensibly they do sound very different, but to me, they’re intimately connected.”
Ikemoto chose teaching as a medium for both of her passions because of her family’s background with teaching. “My grandparents were teachers; and just for me, I love doing my research, but what’s the point of doing research and knowing anything about a field, unless you can teach it?”
Her goals of teaching extend beyond hoping that all her students will one day major in art history: “More largely I think that the discipline of art history teaches a lot beyond that. It teaches about observation, it teaches about how to look, and how to take time, and how to slow down and engage with an object, and engage with your visual environment. It teaches you how to articulate your ideas, how to ask questions about some things that seem impenetrable at first glance. And so, more largely, that’s what I try to teach.”
Having a knowledge of art history extends past just the teaching for Ikemoto. “Art history for me is something that’s not just about the job,” she said. “It’s something that’s always a part of your life. You take those interests wherever you go, you know, when you travel, you visit art museums.”
Her passion for art history runs back to her first years in college at Stanford. One day, Ikemoto’s sister told her that she had to write a ten-page art history paper. Ikemoto was incredulous.
“‘Write ten pages? that’s impossible.’ And she said, ‘Well actually, it isn’t. I think you would really like it, and you should take an introductory class.’ So I did and I was hooked in the first class. I really honestly felt like my eyes had been opened, and that I was seeing the world in a different way after walking out of that class,” she said.
Beyond the classroom, Ikemoto says she can relate her deeper passion in art back to her parents, who were both radiologists. “My sister and I spent a lot of time after school in their offices, especially in my mom’s office, seeing her look at X-rays on a light table and dictate into a microphone. So basically looking at an image and verbalizing what she saw. And I think that that affected me in ways that I didn’t realize at the time, because that’s basically what art history is: it’s looking at an image and translating the visual into the verbal.”
It may surprise some, but the story of hula is rife with controversy. “The whole history of hula has a lot to do with Americanization,” Ikemoto said. “Hula is an ancient art form that then was suppressed with missionary presence in Hawai’i because it was thought by a lot—not all of the missionaries but some—of the missionaries to be pagan, and to be offensive by their standard of proper behavior and culture.”
Hawai’i did not experience a cultural renaissance until the 1970s. “Even when my mom was growing up, she went to a school meant for native Hawai’ians, and they weren’t even allowed to say any hawaiian words: they weren’t allowed to practice any indigenous cultural practices.”
Being able to teach hula at Vassar, on the “mainland,” as some Hawi’ians refer to the continental United States, proved to be a gratifying experience both for Professor Ikemoto and her students. “But it was so meaningful to me to be able to share—to connect with—my culture out here and to share it out here with people to whom it was unfamiliar and foreign. And to see such a sincere interest on the part of several of the students who got really excited about it, it was so meaningful to me: it was so gratifying. It just meant a lot to me to see an interest in something that is very important to me, and a very important part of my life.”
Ikemoto was unable to teach a hula dancing class this semester because of scheduling constraints.
A former hula dancing student, Bella Shea ’16, however, said she won’t soon be forgetting her time in class.
“Professor Ikemoto was great at moving at the pace that suited everyone in the class, and included some unique touches like counting out our warm-ups in Hawaiian, and showing everyone different ways to tie a sarong,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “My one complaint would be that it didn’t last longer.”