How My Dance Teachers Helped Me Survive the Worst of the Pandemic
November 24, 2020

Looking back, it’s hard to describe how terrifying the early days of the pandemic were in New York City. The sudden shutdown of our daily lives; the scarcity of toilet paper and reports of food shortages; the empty stillness of the streets of Manhattan and the sight of the USNS Comfort hospital ship from my bedroom window; the conflicting information on how to stay safe; and the daily press conferences with Governor Cuomo recounting intubations and the daily death toll.

I watched the hospital employees walking to Mount Sinai Hospital next door and marked the passing of time by the daily seven o’clock tribute to essential workers that broke the eerie silences.

Across my industry (travel), the furloughs, layoffs and salary cuts took hold. Thousands of careers cut short; lives in suspended animation. My anxiety level was heightened by the fact that my husband, who is in his 70s, has health complications. For nearly three months, we holed up in our apartment on the 50th floor, only going down to the lobby once a week to collect food deliveries and packages. I insisted my husband stay in the apartment and relentlessly cleaned the surfaces, packages and groceries.

Amid the unyielding bleakness of my days were two bright spots: My dance teachers, both seniors themselves. By profession, I’m a communications and public relations executive, but my first love is dance: ballet, tap, jazz and, in particular, hula, because I lived in Hawaii during my 20s. Prior to the shutdown, I was taking occasional ballet classes at the Ailey Extension from renowned ballet master Finis Jhung, and “…and, at Open Jar Studios, twice-weekly hula classes with Luana Haraguchi. Haraguchi is a kumu hula (master teacher) at New York’s oldest hula school, Hālau Hula O Na Mele ‘Aina O Hawai’i.”

Ruden, wearing a bright red floral top and a green skirt, dances faces her computer which sits atop a stool

The author in virtual hula class. Photo courtesy Ruden

Jhung, who is 83 years old, and Haraguchi, who has been teaching hula for over 50 years, were undaunted by the lockdown. They both turned to Zoom (Jhung with the help of his son and Haraguchi with the help of her assistant) and started offering classes online as early as March.

It’s no small coincidence that both Jhung and Haraguchi grew up in Hawaii. Hawaiian culture is anchored in the concept of “living aloha.” Living aloha is better described in deed than in word, but the words that come to mind are “sharing,” “kindness,” “respect” and “togetherness.”

In Hawaiian terms, Jhung and Haraguchi are considered kupuna, loosely translated as “elders.” But. more specifically, kupuna are living treasures. They are the sources of knowledge that keep traditions alive through their teachings.

My weekly classes with Jhung and Haraguchi have anchored me throughout the pandemic.

Jhung stands in fifth position on his marley mat at home, arms out to the sides, speaking to the large TV screen with Zoom students on it

Finis Jhung teaching a virtual class. Photo courtesy Ruden

The discipline and concentration required in Jhung’s classes helped me forget the turmoil of the outside world for 90 minutes every week, and the exhilaration I felt when I mastered his pirouette combination gave me a needed lift in spirits. Switching to gallery view on Zoom to see more than 60 adult students from around the world sharing a love of dance was heartening. At the end of each class, Jhung gives us advice about surviving during the pandemic, encouraging us to take care of ourselves, turn off the TV and read books and only listen to Dr. Fauci and medical experts.

Hula is about caring and community as much as it is about dance. Being able to see the smiling faces of my hula “sisters” and hear their pandemic stories and struggles makes me feel less isolated. Haraguchi checks on each of us, asking how we are holding up, encouraging us to look for the positives among our challenges. A few days over the summer we even donned our masks and danced socially distant hula in Central Park to the delight of park visitors.

When I became seriously ill with COVID-19, I calmed my panicked breathing by practicing my hula steps in my head to distract myself. As I began to recover, I gauged my progress by my stamina during my hula and ballet classes with the steady and encouraging presence of my two teachers.

Two women in green skirts, masks, and shirts that say "hula is life," stand in a grassy area in the park

The author and a fellow student in Central Park. Photo courtesy Ruden

I learned from these two artists that the beauty of dance—and of any art—is not in the performance or finished piece, but in the passion, the discipline and the power of sharing your knowledge and inspiring others.

If the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that there is great beauty in aging when we are receptive to the wisdom our elders have to offer. I will be forever grateful for their example.

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