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Hula master, working to preserve traditional Hawaiian dance, wins 'genius grant'

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The MacArthur Fellowships were announced this week and they include legal scholars, scientists, composers and a hula dancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PATRICK MAKUAKANE: (Singing in non-English language).

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah. That Genius Grant recipient is Kumu Patrick Makuakane, a master hula teacher based in San Francisco. He's working to preserve the traditional Hawaiian dance and move it forward.

MAKUAKANE: I think of myself as a cultural organizer, a cultural preservationist, perhaps a cultural provocateur with my work, because not only am I impassioned about preserving our traditions, I'm a firm believer that innovation has to be part of the mix in order to keep our culture vibrant and relevant.

FADEL: Makuakane has been dancing hula for almost 50 years.

MAKUAKANE: Hula just opens the door to every facet of culture, religion, philosophy, art that you could possibly want to learn about. I mean, it speaks to everything in our history and our genealogy. And so it just kind of gave me a way to express my native identity.

MARTÍNEZ: His dance company has thrived, in part, thanks to a new style of hula that he developed called hula mua.

MAKUAKANE: I use non-Hawaiian music to create work. So everything from pop music to electronic, progressive house, opera, adult contemporary, jazz, anything that has a beat and a meter.

FADEL: In his shows, Makuakane explores the socioeconomic hardship native Hawaiians have endured over the course of their history.

MARTÍNEZ: After losing friends to AIDS, he began incorporating gay rights into his performances.

FADEL: His show, called "Mahu," celebrated transgender artists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

MAKUAKANE: If you're going to call your show "Mahu," which is the Hawaiian term for the LGBTQ+ community, I wanted to help process of taking that word back to one of agency and power and affirmation.

MARTÍNEZ: Makuakane still isn't sure how he's going to spend the $800,000 he'll receive over the next five years as part of the Genius Grant.

MAKUAKANE: I'm still in shock and disbelief, but there's also a feeling of guilt. I never would have gotten here if it wasn't for this really lovely community that I've been sustaining for many decades. I'm beyond grateful to them. And yeah, we did it all together.

MARTÍNEZ: One thing he will do is keep on dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAKUAKANE: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.