• by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday April 29, 2008
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Outside of Hawai'i, the Bay Area has the largest concentration of hula dance companies in the world. The deceptively simple dance form is actually one of the most difficult of traditional ethnic dances around.

Shot in 2005, Lisette Kaualena Flanary's one-hour documentary Na Kamalei: Men of Hula shows the delicate cultural balance one contemporary hula company holds, and how it changed the lives of a company of men. One of less than a dozen all-male dance ensembles in Hawai'i, Halau Na Kamalei, founded in 1975 by popular singer Robert Cazimero, is featured from early rehearsals to the competitive Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, the largest hula dance festival in the world.

Partially immersed in the Hawai'ian cultural revival, and also aware of modern influences, the film covers a short history of the dance form, its repression by Christian missionaries, its tourist-focused, sexist simplification in past decades, and the recent return of men as popular participants in hula.

Flanary is a hula dancer herself, and her previous film, American Aloha, covered hula's renaissance and migration to California. She gives her subjects an understandably sympathetic portrayal. Flanary's second film, which won several Best Documentary titles at 2006 film festivals across the country, includes both subtle and blunt issues for gay viewers. First off, all the men are gorgeous in their own way, ranging from burly to lean, self-proclaimed "old cows" to an unsure 19-year-old surfer, the youngest in the company. It's not just the physical beauty of the men, nor the sensual techniques of hula dancing that will stir viewers, but the sensitive and passionate aspect of this culture, where men can be masculine and at the same time reclaim the delicate nuances of their cultural heritage through movement and ritual.

At the same time, accusations of "being gay" are discussed openly between straight and possibly gay participants. Some still seem uneasy with the topic, while others, sure in their masculinity whatever their sexuality, embrace the dance form.

The dancers endure Cazimero's harsh criticisms in rehearsal, and reap the rewards of being part of the intimate dynasty of performers taking men's hula into the 21st century.

Na Kamalei: Men of Hula airs Tuesday, May 6 at 11:30 p.m. on KQED, Channel 9.