Cabarrus

To say goodbye to the blues, say aloha to hula

Donna "Sunny" Patterson, 62, lives on Lake Norman and enjoys boating, golf and making jewelry. She also enjoys swaying her hips to the rhythmic beat of Hawaiian music.

Patterson's favorite pastime, hula dancing, is something she began as a lark but has taken to a nearly professional level.

Patterson is part of a group of women who met through a line dancing class at the Levine Senior Center, who call themselves Ona Ona Tute E, which means "lovely grandmother" in Hawaiian.

They, along with their Cabarrus County Senior Center counterparts, Nani Tutu E - "beautiful grandmother" - have twice traveled together to Hawaii with their instructor, Yolanda Osborn, and have performed onstage at Waikiki Beach and at a Luau in Maui.

Osborn, 62, a native of Honolulu, started dancing the hula when she was 5.

After moving to Charlotte in 1978, Osborn, who lives in Raintree, kept up her hula dancing as a performer at festivals and events but didn't become a Hula instructor until 1993, when she was approached by a group of women in her line dancing class who knew she was a professional hula dancer.

Osborn starts her classes off with hapa haole songs (hula sung in English accompanied by a ukulele or guitar). She includes cultural lessons with each dance class so that her students learn not only the movements but their significance. Her Concord and Matthews classes have progressed to learning the dance in the Hawaiian language.

Patterson credits hula dancing with improving her coordination, since it involves using one's hands and feet at the same time as one's torso. She likens it to yoga because, as she puts it, "it is a complete exercise of the mind, body and spirit." She also sees similarities with sign language because "dancing hand movements explain the words of the songs."

Patterson's groups, along with the others Osborn teaches, began by performing their newly-minted hula dancing skills at nursing homes but have since traveled throughout North Carolina and performed at festivals and competitions including the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., and a public mall in Maui, Hawaii.

For Ilene Smith, 67, part of the Cabarras County Senior Center's hula group since 2004, the highlight of her hula performances is the audience reaction.

"I enjoy seeing the smiles of the audiences where we perform, be it at a local nursing home, retirement center or on stage at any venue," she said.

For Patterson, a highlight is that Hawaiians "like their women to be a healthy size, so it doesn't matter if you are overweight."

Both Smith and Patterson and their hula dancing cohorts also relish the costumes each dance requires, often making their own with such enthusiasm that Osborn has to reel them in and request modifications.

"I kid them about being Barbie dolls at heart," Osborn said. "They all just love dressing up."

They wear traditional Hawaiian garb, like grass skirts, sarongs, colorful cloth pa'u skirts and tops along with leis and hakus (garlands of flowers worn around the neck and head).

Osborn, whose students range in age from their 60s to late 70s, said they "know enough not to bare their midriffs."

Osborn marvels at her students' courage, especially when they have shared the stage with professional hula dancers like the Makaha Sons, and she said "they have embraced every aspect of Hula dancing."

The perks - aside from the trips to Hawaii Osborn has offered her students, serving as tour guide and lining up performances - are many. Patterson said she enjoys the satisfaction of everything coming together.

"When you have truly learned the song, you become more graceful with your movements," she said. "You become truly relaxed and it releases a feeling of well-being."

Smith agrees, saying she has discovered that hula dancing chases the blues away.

"I have learned that life is much more enjoyable while dancing the hula," she said.

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