With shaky hands I handed the cassette over to the teacher. She loaded it into the stereo, hit play and melodious guitar strumming filled the air. I put my hands on my hips, bent my knees, lifted my head, smiled a nervous smile and started to dance, my body automatically forming the movements that my mother had taught me over the course of several weeks. I had not grown up dancing hula in a halau or school, but hula had always been in my life, and every Hawaiian girl knows at least the basics.
It’s 1995. I was in sixth grade, and it was the year that I could become May Day Queen. May Day is a big deal in Hawaii, where schools put on a big festival of student performances filled with song and dance. In elementary school, each grade sends a “prince” and “princess” to represent one of the eight main Hawaiian Islands as part of the royal court. The court “rules” over the festivities, and the crown jewel of the court is the May Day Queen. For years I gazed in admiration at her long white holokū or gown, her crown of small white crown flower blossoms and the beautiful maile lei draped around her neck. How regal and graceful she looked! I was always held in rapt attention as she danced a solo hula for her fellow students. She was a vision, and all eyes were on her.
I desperately wanted that girl to be me one day.
When May Day preparations began in my sixth grade year, the faculty decided they’d hold an audition for May Day Queen. She had to be a good student, who worked hard and got good grades, but beyond that, the most important requirement was that she could dance.
I knew I could dance, but I also knew who I was up against – girls who were formally trained to be meticulously precise, girls who knew how to perform in front of large audiences, girls with a whole catalog of dances they could recall at a moments’ notice, girls who had a closet full of pāʻū skirts and drawers full of traditional hula adornments.
I was out of my league.
“It’s not gonna be Joelle. She doesn’t belong to any halau,” was whispered as we sat waiting to hear what the teachers had decided.
It’s hard for me to describe the utter shock and disbelief that coursed through my body at the sound of my name escaping the teachers lips. Me! May Day Queen! Only a handful of girls get that opportunity and I was one of them!
The next few months were a flurry of rehearsals, dress fittings, more rehearsals and more dress fittings. And when that day came and I stood before the entire school and began to dance with my own beautiful white holokū with its long flowing train, my own crown flower crown and maile lei draped around my neck, I realized that I was living my dream, and there isn’t much in this life that’s sweeter.
To this day I don’t really know what the teachers saw in me or why I was chosen, but if I had let myself get intimidated by the other, more experienced girls, I wouldn’t be telling you this, one of my most cherished memories today.
Whenever I feel like I’m not good enough, or that I shouldn’t even try since there are obviously so many more capable people than I, I think about that twelve year old girl who had the guts to go for it, knowing that she probably wasn’t the best, and she probably wouldn’t be chosen, but that she’d regret it for the rest of her life if she let the opportunity pass her by.