In Japan, seniors are saying ‘aloha’ to the hula


TOKYO — Hula, Hawaii’s traditional dance, is enjoying something of a boom among older women.

While its movements are mellow, if done correctly, it can strengthen the lower body and even lower the risk of falls.

At a dance studio in the Ebisu district of Tokyo, a group of middle-aged and elderly women wearing colorful skirts gathered for a hula lesson in July.

There are about 500,000 hula dancers nationwide, according to the Japan Hula Association, with a recent notable increase in female dancers in their 50s and older.

“The leisurely music and movements are easy for middle-aged and elderly people to get used to. I think elderly women take pleasure in wearing feminine outfits and dancing elegantly with their friends,” said Hiro Naope, an instructor with the association.

Kumiko Hara, who runs a cardiovascular clinic in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, focuses on hula as an exercise program elderly people can stick with.

A certified instructor herself, Hara holds hula lessons on the clinic’s second floor. She measures her students’ physical fitness and takes CT scans every six months, and says she has observed a variety of positive effects.

First among them is an increase in muscle strength, which is necessary to prevent falls.

In hula, one dances with the upper body straight and the knees bent. Just holding this basic posture is enough to strengthen the muscles of the lower body.

The psoas major, the muscle that connects the lower back to the legs, becomes thicker in the first six months of hula, according to Hara.

Students who practice at least three hours per week see a reduction in visceral fat in half a year, she said.

However, dancing with bent knees can be hard on those with knee problems.

“I tell people who are going to an orthopedic doctor they should consult their attending physician before starting hula,” Hara said.

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Most people first learn hula in hula classes or culture schools.

The hand movements in hula are not just for show, they communicate the meaning of the lyrics in Hawaiian.

Most teachers instruct students to dance with an understanding of the Hawaiian lyrics, though some elderly people find it difficult to learn words in a new language.

For this reason, Maria Niino, who heads the Japan Hula Association, created hula dances to songs in Japanese.

To perform the first part of “Bara ga Saita” (A rose in bloom) by Kuranosuke Hamaguchi, Niino recommends that dancers do the following: Assume the basic posture of hula, standing with your toes pointed forward and your legs about two hand-widths apart. Your upper body should be straight and your knees slightly bent. Using the basic step known as the kaholo, take two steps to the right with the rhythm, and two steps to the left. Then repeat.

“If you keep it up for the whole song, it’s good exercise,” Niino said. “You don’t have to bend your knees. If you’re interested, please contact a school so you can practice properly.”