What My Teacher Taught Me: Jenifer Dillow on Hālau Manaola’s Nani Lim Yap
December 31, 2023

After years of a professional performance career in New York City, I decided I needed a break from dance. I had a very unhealthy relationship with it, and it had become toxic to me. So, I decided to move to Hawaii for a month to reset. Instead, I stayed for two years, and dance came back into my life in a beautiful and healthy way.

I started working at a restaurant when I moved to Hawaii, and my boss there recommended I try hula dancing. He said he didn’t know of a place but would call someone he knew. It turns out he sent me to one of Hawaii’s best hālau companies, Hālau Manaola. The women there had done hula since they were young—just like I’d trained in ballet since I was young. They weren’t open for enrollment, and I had limited experience, yet they let me join.

That’s when I met my Kumu (teacher), Nani Lim Yap. I respected Kumu so much. Dance was life to her, and I could relate to that. Even though we came through very different backgrounds both culturally and dance-wise, we both breathed that same sentiment that dance was life and life was dance. Everything she did was excellent—all the way down to what she wore. I almost cried after every practice because I was so overwhelmed. I had a lot to learn.

She was very strict. She cared about the technique, and the storytelling/cultural meaning of it all. It was very important to her that I understood what I was dancing about. She taught me that there is a sacred weight to each move you do, and that it connects to the mele (song.) She would often ask us to translate the mele, and I would shake in my boots. I remember the first time I felt accepted into the group was when we sat in a circle one day and she called on me to translate. I was able to do it, and it felt like she thought “OK, this girl is taking this seriously.”

Photo courtesy Dillow.

I think the biggest thing she taught me is that all are welcome. I grew up in a dance world in which you had to look a certain way and be a certain age, and if you didn’t fit that mold you weren’t going to make it. I had been told my body wasn’t right, my feet weren’t flexible enough, my knees weren’t this, that, or the other. Kumu couldn’t care less what I looked like or how old I was. There were grandmas in the hālau who could dance circles around me. They were the most beautiful dancers I had ever seen. There was never any pressure to lose weight or morph into something different. She never even brought bodies up. It was never part of her adjustments. She only cared about the story and the technique.

Kumu’s approach to teaching is ingrained in me now. When I came back to New York to dance again, I held on to it. I had a very bad eating disorder, which is why I left the dance industry in the first place. So, I’m very aware how powerful words are and how powerful teachers can be in dancers’ lives when it comes to body image. I take Kumu’s mantra seriously. All are welcome in the class I now teach at Broadway Dance Center. 

I want to thank Kumu. Dancing with Hālau Manaola was my launching pad back into my career. My time with her was probably the most raw time of my life. I was in the beginning stages of recovery, my body was morphing and changing, and she never once commented on it. Because of her, I was able to come back to dance in a healthy way. I owe Kumu a lot and I’m so grateful. 

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