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Student Balances the Art of Hula and Medicine

High school graduation at La Pietra Hawaii School for Girls where they performed a hula for family and friends. (Image credit: Courtesy of Kyrra Lau-Eglinton)
By Vivian Mason

Air Force 2nd Lt. Kyrra Lau-Eglinton has always felt blessed to have been born Hawaiian and to raised to honor her Pacific Island roots. The fourth-year medical student at Uniformed Services University’s F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine is deeply connected to her heritage and history. Even her middle name, Kahakumeleikapu'uwai (pronounced kah-hah-koo-meh-leh-ee-kah-poo-ooh-vī), which means “the Lord’s song in my heart,” reflects her treasured culture. But nothing ties her to her native state more than her love of hula.

Kyrra performs at a luau. (Image credit: Courtesy of Kyrra Lau-Eglinton)
“My mom always encouraged me to dance hula,” says Lau-Eglinton. “I started in third grade. Eventually, it became a passion of mine. Growing up in Hawaii and becoming a hula dancer, well that’s huge! I always felt as though it was a wonderful opportunity whenever I danced for someone.”

Hula is a graceful Polynesian dance accompanied by songs and chanting that honor Hawaii’s stories, deities, history, and land. It uses hand gestures to make the stories come alive. Every part of the hula dancer’s costume has meaning. The ti leaves used in the “grass” skirts represent divine power and protection against evil. Even the flowers and plants that adorn the dancers have meaning. Polynesian dance encompasses Tahitian, Tongan, Samoan, Fijian, Maori (New Zealand), and Hawaiian styles.

“Hula’s part of our culture,” Lau-Eglinton explains. “It’s important to carry it with you wherever you go in the world. Our culture teaches you to remember where you came from, to remember your family and loved ones, and to know that the Great Spirit will help you get to where you’re going.

“I did hula and Tahitian dancing,” she says. Her face lights up as she talks about it. “They’re very different. Hula is from Hawaii, and Tahitian is from French Polynesia. I danced them both all through elementary, middle, and high school. However, when I graduated from high school, I was invited to dance professionally for a luau, which is a traditional Hawaiian party or feast that’s usually accompanied by Hawaiian music and dancing entertainment. That was a big honor. So, I was a luau dancer for several years. I also got to do Maori and Samoan dancing.”

Hula is a true an art form. “Originally, hula was a way in which the native Hawaiians would tell their stories from generation to generation [known as mo’olelo in Hawaiian]. Instead of having a written language, they used hula to tell the stories of their ancestors,” she says. As she speaks, her love and excitement for the dance is evident in her voice.

“Over the years,” she describes, “I’ve enthusiastically shared with people how I grew up in Hawaii, and they became very interested in my life and experiences. Hula was always that extra something special about my life that I truly enjoyed sharing with others. When people meet me, then it all kind of makes sense to them: being raised as a Hawaiian in Hawaii, hula dancing, incorporating the Aloha spirit into my life, and wanting to make people happy.”

Kyrra performs at a luau. (Image credit: Courtesy of Kyrra Lau-Eglinton)
That Aloha spirit (or “breath of life), at its simplest, is a way of living and treating people with love and respect. It’s a connection of the mind and heart to the life force. Ancient Hawaiians equated the Aloha spirit to attaining spiritual enlightenment, and native Hawaiians now consider it a way of life. She incorporates that philosophy – and hula -- into practicing medicine as well.

“Dance and medicine really are very similar,” she offers. “There are a lot of lessons I’ve learned from hula. But, I’ve mostly learned confidence. My performance background helps me to interact with people. For instance, I’m on stage dancing in front of a large audience that I’ve never met before, and I share hula with all of them. There’s an intimacy of sorts. Medicine is similar to that. But I develop more of a trusting relationship with patients, although I do it more professionally, as well as educate them.

“When I was very young, I always wanted to be a doctor. It was my deepest passion, but I loved hula dancing, too,” she continues. “Hula is a part of who I am, and so is medicine. I didn’t need to leave one for the other because they both define who I am. I wish that I could dance more. Medical school can get really hectic sometimes. It’s so easy to get lost in the science and all the academics, and lose myself on a personal level, but dance helps balance it all. Having something that can connect you to your culture can keep you grounded.”

She and a classmate who is also from Hawaii had been thinking of perhaps starting a small hula club or dance group at USU. “I wish more people knew all that hula has to offer and how much value is really in this art form,” Lau-Eglinton explains. “Honestly, I still enjoy hula and Polynesian dancing. But, for me, I mainly want to share with audiences the story of Hawaii and show the beauty of the art form, the performance, and the culture. Having hula as my touchstone helps me to stay focused on my goals and become the best person that I can be.”