The Hawaii Belly Dance Convention attracts dancers and teachers from around the globe.

Dancers at the Hawaii Belly Dance Convention

Briefly clad dancers with hips swaying under the palms are iconic images entwined in the history of the Hawaiian Islands. While hula may be the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people, another feminine artform takes center stage when Middle Eastern practitioners from around the world gather in Honolulu this month for the 10th annual Hawaii Belly Dance Convention.

The convention is a labor of love and brainchild of dancer and producer Malia Delapenia. Born and raised in the islands studying everything from ballet, hula and martial arts, she found that a belly dance class with mentor Shakti Sundae Merrick stole her heart. “It was so woman-empowering,” says Delapenia. “I fell in love.”

She has traversed the world teaching her particular style—“Malia Delapenia,” a mix of the Saidi, Ghawazee, folkloric, American cabaret, Egyptian, tribal and fusion styles she has studied. Her impetus to create the belly dance convention was to bring the various practitioners she’d encountered to the islands to teach, and to expose Hawaii to the artform. By introducing one ancient culture to another, Delapenia is doing her part as cultural ambassador. “It is one big crazy celebration,” she says. “The whole thing feels like putting on a wedding each year.”

Begun as a one-day event, the convention is now five days of classes, with performances, showcases, lectures, a pop-up marketplace, social gatherings and plenty of opportunities to admire the natural beauty of the islands and taste local flavors. The “Belly Dancers Gone Bad” catamaran cruise off Waikiki and hike to Maunawili Falls are highlights. Delapenia curates opening night “Shimmy Showcases,” which take place at the Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, stringing together many styles and choreographies geared toward entertaining and educating her audiences. “This year we have decided to produce a two-show format, so performers and audience have the space to explore both sides of the artform,” she says. “Essence will showcase traditional movements, and The Unveiling will be a more modern and sensual exploration of the dance.”

On day two of the convention, hundreds of students will participate in “Shimmy with Aloha” workshops and lectures, held at the Neal S. Blaisdell Convention center. Classes titled “Tight Locks and Luscious Layers,” “Fingers Cymbals the Ambidextrous Method!” and “Egyptian Spice” are taught by Ashley Lopez, Shahrzad, Amira and the convention’s first male teacher, a pioneer of tribal fusion belly dance, Frank Farinaro.

The convention takes place October 10–14. DT

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Rachel Berman is a former dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company and an educator, manager, fundraiser and freelance writer.

Photo courtesy of Hawaii Belly Dance Convention; map ©Thinkstock

As dancers, Seán Curran, Yvette L. Campbell and John-Mario Sevilla had illustrious performing careers with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Elisa Monte Dance and Pilobolus, respectively. Now, as arts educators, they run a diverse range of New York City programs: educating their communities, bringing the arts to the underserved and teaching the value of rigor and discipline to a generation accustomed to immediate satisfaction. Dance Teacher recently asked the three to discuss the state of arts education and what it takes to be a dancer in 2014.

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Dancer talk about the training that got them to the show.

On the air for nine seasons, FOX’s “So You Think You Can Dance” is collectively controversial, educational and entertaining. The show is a springboard for versatile young artists vying to become “America’s Favorite Dancer.” Bestowed instant household-name recognition, they go on to perform on television, in films and on Broadway, or tour with top recording artists and dance companies. The show has also provided a platform for emerging and established choreographers, and guest artists of all genres shine in the spotlight of reality celebrity. These are all good things.

Yet there is at least one thing missing. There is little mention of the training that helped the young artists get to this point in their careers. While “SYTYCD” is structured to highlight the individual, the reality is that natural talent is only a seedling that must be nurtured. It is the coaches and mentors along the way who inspire, educate, motivate and mold the futures of these young artists.

Who are these unsung heroes who set the stage for future stardom? DT sought out several contestants to learn where they got their start.


Melanie Moore

Teachers: Becca Moore and Dani Rosenberg

Rhythm Dance Center

Marietta, Georgia

Every studio has a star student. But that label can put dancers at a standstill when teachers allow them to settle for less than their utmost potential. “Often, once you get to that place in a studio, the tendency is to relax a bit,” says Season 8 winner Melanie Moore, whose smarts and tenacity constantly surprised her teachers at Rhythm Dance Center. She started dancing at the studio at age 15 after seeing their dancers at competitions. “At my old studio I felt my talent had hit a plateau. No matter how technically good I got, Becca and Dani taught me to never stop working. They never put me on some pedestal or let me rest on my laurels. They taught me that this was a bigger journey and that I had to keep growing.”

Moore’s teachers pushed her to audition for “SYTYCD.” “They would have bought me a plane ticket if I had let them,” she says. Even after her win, Moore, now working in L.A., has continued to train and work on her technique, despite her demanding schedule. “Dancers here seem to settle into work mode and just go from rehearsal to rehearsal. I still want to take class; I still need to take class. There is so much to learn.”


Cole Horibe

Teacher: Marcelo Pacleb

24-VII Danceforce

Kaneohe, Hawaii

Before “SYTYCD,” Cole Horibe nearly gave up dance for good. After a five-year break, his teacher Marcelo Pacleb ushered him back into class and encouraged him to grow through his unique martial arts background—the ninja style voters responded to on the show. “I have always been my own worst critic, never satisfied. I always thought I looked and danced differently. Then I finally decided to go with it and have fun,” he says. “It was Marcelo who encouraged me to come back to dance. His talent is helping people find their individuality as an artist.”

Pacleb has had three students appear on “SYTYCD,” each with a unique style. Mark Kanemura (Season 4) and Kúpono Aweau (Season 5) have gone on to perform with Lady Gaga and Madonna. Both encouraged and inspired by his peers, Horibe waited three years before he followed their lead and auditioned for “SYTYCD.” His mixed training, along with his charisma, is what led him to his place in the Top 6. Quiet and humble, Horibe, according to Pacleb, is the hardest working and most dedicated student he can remember, a thought often echoed by Horibe’s fellow “SYTYCD” contestants. Horibe often skipped group dinners and movie outings to practice week after week.


Kent Boyd

Teachers: Pam Houston, Tabitha Dickson, Michelle Wolke, Kirsten Walters

The Dance Centre

Wapakoneta, Ohio

Season 7 taught dancers to never underestimate the value of small-town dance studios. Judges talked about all-American farm boy Kent Boyd as if he had sprung up straight from a cornfield with impeccable technique. His home studio in Wapakoneta was never mentioned on air, nor was the group of teachers who had been molding him—even though most of them were in his living room when Nigel Lythgoe told him he’d been selected for the show.

Boyd’s mom enrolled him at The Dance Centre when he was 4 to keep him from tearing apart her living room. There, Tabitha Dickson showed him how to channel his energy into dance. Boyd soon fell in love with movement—a quality so evident that judges on the show often commented negatively. “Tabitha taught me to always perform at 100 percent. She made everything fun. We danced and sang and dressed up!” says Boyd. “At competitions I was often criticized by the judges for having too much fun. That happened when I was on “SYTYCD” as well.”

But this instilled outlook is what books him gigs today. “If you are a good person who works hard, choreographers often hire you again and again. I am finding that in L.A., work ethic and personality get you jobs,” he says. “[My teachers] were life coaches, not just dance coaches.”


Melissa Sandvig

Teacher: David Wilcox

Long Beach Ballet School

Long Beach, California

“SYTYCD” didn’t see a ballerina in the Top 20 until Season 5, when Long Beach Ballet dancer Melissa Sandvig stunned with her pure technique. Though the show had seen several well-trained ballet dancers audition before, Sandvig had something that set her apart from the others. She says, “The most memorable thing David Wilcox told me was—at the age of 15—that my technique was great, but at some point I needed to let go and ‘just dance.’ That’s when I really started to enjoy the process of my training and was able to show who I was through my artistry. He helped me with my quality of movement and how to connect to an audience through acting and character.”

In a world where contemporary rules, Sandvig paved the way for others of her genre, including both 2012 winners. But she owes her accomplishments on the show to Wilcox. “It was David’s love for me as a dancer and person that encouraged me—and still encourages me—to be successful,” she says. DT

Rachel Berman is a former dancer with the Paul Taylore Dance Company and an educator, fundraiser and freelance writer.

Photo: All-star Melanie Moore performs with Cyrus Spencer in a piece by Mandy Moore, courtesy of FOX Broadcasting

Like most Hawaiians growing up in the islands, Patrick Makuak-ane was introduced to hula at a young age. In high school he realized it would be part of his life forever. “This is what I was meant to do,” he says. “Hula is my life. It is the key that opened the doors to my Hawaiian identity, connecting me to my heritage.” Attending college in San Francisco, Makuak-ane fell in love with the City by the Bay and ultimately chose it as the home base for his 40-member dance company and school, N-a Lei Hulu I Ka W-ekiu.


In 1985 he began teaching hula to a handful of friends in a small dance studio owned by Joffrey Ballet co-founder Gerald Arpino. Today Makuak-ane’s h-alau (school), with over 300 students, fills the auditorium of the local elementary school where classes are held. Most evenings, and all day Sunday, you can hear the dulcet strains of ukulele, mele (song), oli (chanting) and laughter permeating Makuak-ane’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. Not a traditional school or dance company in Western terms, a h-alau is an extended family, a catalyst for community.


Students—adult men and women from college age to retired grandparents, Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian—come from all over the Bay Area, united in their love of the islands. Some are missing home; many are drawn to Makuak-ane’s loving persona.


“Hula is about inclusiveness, the shared power of aloha,” Makuak-ane says. “There is something magical about a group of people moving together in an authentic cultural expression, regardless of age or body type.”


Makuak-ane has developed his own trademark style called hula mua (“hula that evolves”), which blends traditional movements with non-Hawaiian music—everything from opera to pop. He says, “You have to start with tradition and then move forward.”


Every few years he assembles a new class and begins the journey of passing on chants, songs and dances—both ‘auana (modern) and kahiko (ancient)—he learned from his teachers, the hula masters John Keola Lake, Robert Cazimero and Mae Kam-amalu Klein. Hula is tied to Hawaiian language, and Makuak-ane is committed to incorporating it and Hawaiian history into all his lessons. On occasion, a student may be selected to join his dance company, which has toured nationally from Honolulu to New York City and appears in an annual show in San Francisco.


Makuak-ane’s 2010 production, 25 Years of Hula, A special anniversary performance, runs October 16–17, 22–24, at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre. It presents a mix of traditional dances and hula mua favorites like “The Flower Duet” from the opera Lakmé, the disco-inspired Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand and one of his more political works, Salva Mea, about the arrival of the missionaries and overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. He is also creating a new suite of dances inspired by the Kumulipo, a sacred Hawaiian creation chant.


Makuak-ane says, “The best thing about teaching is that I get to dance with my haumana [students], no pressure, just aloha and engagement with one another. I look forward to what the next 25 years hold!”


For more, see:


Rachel Berman is a native Hawaiian who has danced with Paul Taylor Dance Company, Ballet Hispanico and American Repertory Dance Company, among others. She’s currently company manager at Company C Contemporary Ballet in California.


Photo: Patrick Makuak¯ane and Kahala Bishaw (by Julie Mau, courtesy of Patrick Makuak-ane)

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