Kalae Kaina was born on the electric island of Oahu, HI. She is a breathtaking Tribal Fusion performer, instructor and founder of Shakti Dance Movement. To witness her dance is to behold the wonders of the Divine Feminine. In 2005, Kalae was first set on her path, destined towards Tribal Fusion Belly Dance. However, isolated as she was from the mainland, being based in Hawaii would soon prove to present a challenge. Undaunted, Kalae decided to take matters into her own hands, creating a community for Tribal to thrive where it previously did not exist. Today, she is the producer of the annual Hawaii Retreat with Zoe Jakes & Kami Liddle. Her passion for Tribal, and commitment to sisterhood, has profoundly impacted the Islands as a whole. On a beautiful Kailua day, we were lucky enough to sit down with Kalae and hear about the twists and turns of her path as a dancer and creatrix.
WS: What's your dance history and how did you find Tribal Fusion Belly Dance?
KK: My first teacher was Jean Yanagawa. I danced with her for 4 to 5 years solid. Her teacher was a student of Jamila Solimpour, so she did Jemima Format in an American Cabaret style. We had the influence of Fat Chance Belly Dance back then. We would imitate their costuming and loved their aesthetic. Then I took Rachel Brice’s Maui intensive in 2005, and that was my first real exposure to Tribal Fusion belly dance. After that I was just like, "OMG this is what I love!"
Because I’m so isolated in Hawaii, there was no Tribal Fusion here, and I basically had to build the community that I wanted. Kami Liddle at the Maui intensive was Rachel’s assistant, so the following year we had Kami down to teach; and after Kami, we had Zoe [Jakes] and it just started growing. I had to bring the teachers to me in order to learn what I wanted to learn. Otherwise, I would have had to go to the mainland. Now I organize a dance retreat with two teacher— Zoe and Kami. I produce my own events. When I was producing events in Honolulu, I wasn’t making any money because our dance community is very small here, so I had to shift. But I was doing this so I could learn the dances as well: it was cheaper to put in all the money and do all the work, but still get the classroom hours as opposed to buying a plane ticket, renting a car, renting a hotel and going to the mainland to study. So, I would bring Zoe and Kami twice a year and Zoe had the brilliant idea of setting up a retreat.
This year was our fourth year that we did it. We had 50 women from all over the world — Australia, Japan and some Europeans. We danced throughout the week. We’ve gotten better at it every year, and it's growing. We’re getting better at the flow. It was very exciting at the end.
I started going to Tribal Fest in 2006 and I’ve been every year since then and also I've been to the Tribal Massive a bunch, just learning. I feel the community here in Honolulu has really grown from the work that I’ve done teaching, creating a student base and creating choreography for students to perform.
WS: What drew you to Tribal Fusion specifically?
KK: The aesthetic. It was the very stoic and mysterious stage aesthetic that tribal dancers carry that I was really attracted to. Also, the costuming was more matched with me. (I didn’t feel comfortable in sparkly things and I’d been a hippie since I was a teenager.) I loved belly dance because it was a women’s dance and it's an ancient art form; and Tribal just really got me because it's not about the soloist, it's about your group—it's about your tribe. So, with Shakti Dance Movement, my dance company, that's been the foundation of why we dance together. And, of course, as we become more professional we do focus on technique— but first we’re friends. They’re my best friends—all the ladies that I dance with. So, I think that what’s more important than looking good on stage is that foundation from which you create.
So, we get together a lot, we drink wine a lot, we watch each others' kids... we have each others back. We go through a lot—it's not easy trying to be friends and trying to be performers. Group dynamic is difficult, but we work through it—and we’ve been a group for 10 years. Most artistic decisions are made by me, but I do appreciate collective ideas. Everybody, I feel, has a role in the company, and that role comes naturally to the person. I try to use the skills that each person has to add to the group, so it's like we’re all working together. We’re all creating together.
WS: What do you think is the most important aspect of this community and your place as a leader in it? What do you feel is your message that you share with these women?
KK: For me it's empowerment through dance. I’ve seen so many of my students totally change and transform just by increasing body awareness, by increasing their self-esteem through looking gorgeous and learning how to do their makeup; teaching them how to make awesome costumes so that they look and feel beautiful. I’ve just seen so many of my girls just start super shy—like, painfully shy—and are now amazing performers. I think that's the amazing part.
WS: On an international level, what does the Tribal Fusion movement bring to the art world that you don't see in other dance forms?
KK: I feel like there’s a lot of room to be creative and unique— in the sense that, with classical dance forms there is a system and its very much this is the way its done. You can watch the same dance done by a different woman in a different company and it's exactly the same. It's codified and it's very precise dance form. Tribal Fusion and world fusion dance form is trying to bring in other dance forms into it. I feel like it gives the person more freedom to express and be authentic with their own vision and their own ideas.
WS: The genre of music is pretty diverse, too, right?
KK: Yeah, people are using all kinds of music for the dance. I try to use music that has some sort of ethnic vein in it...but sometimes I like good old dubstep or trap. I like all kinds of music, so I try to pull from what I like at that time. I usually write a concept or story behind a group piece that I do so, depending on that underlining story, then I choose a music piece that will fit the storyline. When I’m doing big group productions—especially for Tribal Fest, we have one here, called "The Shimmy Showcase," that Malia Delapenia produces—it's like a bigger stage show. So, usually when I start formulating a piece, I create a storyline and I start to fill the story with ideas or research what I’m thinking about; and I usually write it down and then draw costuming that I think goes with it.
WS: It sounds like the belly dancers here in Hawaii are pretty supportive of one another. Do you feel like that rings true for the tribal community in general?
KK: Yeah. When I go to Tribal Fest or Tribal Massive it's like my extended family. I love seeing everybody and we all kind of gather at these events to learn and share our art form. People come from all around the world, and we love and support each other.
WS: That says something about the movement, too. Not to say that not every art form originates from the heart, or from authentic creation... but being able to maintain that level of community... I think often things become very competitive, very commercial.
KK: I mean, there is that aspect of it, but for the most part it's especially supportive, just within the dancers that come to the events to learn and dance. It's awesome.
WS: How do you feel like Hawaii influences your art—the land, the culture, living here?
KK: I feel [that] being from Hawaii and being part Hawaiian is really unique, because we are so small, we’re so isolated. I feel like it definitely gives me a unique thing to offer in my dance; and I could not live anywhere else but Hawaii. I can’t be away from the ocean. I can’t be away from the mountains. I can’t be away from greenness. Three weeks on the mainland is probably the longest I’ve been out there; and I get so homesick, because I just need nature, and I need the beach and the sunshine and the warm water. It definitely fuels my being — just being able to be outside and comfortable with the warm weather.
WS: And you feel like that inspires your art, too?
KK: I feel like it's a nest. A warm nest — and it's easy to be comfortable and it's easy to be happy. Life is good in Hawaii, and I feel like I’m super supported in my art form: my husband has been pushing me harder than I push myself, and supports me fully. I don’t have to work a 9 to 5 job, so I’m super supported.
WS: Which aspects of self-care do you feel are able to fuel your dancing most?
KK: I feel like I can create the best when I’m feeling happy and healthy. I feel that I can’t drink as much as I used to. I need to listen to my body. I can’t drink as much caffeine as I like to. It's just really simple self-care things: I like to stretch, take my daily vitamins; I love getting a massage, doing pilates and walking on the beach. It makes a huge difference, because my art, as a dancer, is through my body. My canvas is my body, so I really have to take care of it. Otherwise, I feel like a brick, and I can’t move it, and I can’t express through it if I’m not feeling good.
WS: I came across a course that you had given, "The Aspects of dubstep in Movement". Is that something that you’ve studied particularly?
KK: This was a workshop that I taught at Tribal Fest many years ago. It was when the dubstep genre of music was really popular in our dance form, but now not so much, because everything is changing, everything has fads and phases—but we used to dance to dubstep a lot. There used to be a group of DJs here that would put together dubstep monthlies, and we used to perform at that. I studied the rhythmic aspects of the music, and would play around with just creating interesting movement patterns to the rhythms, to the different parts of the music. It was a musicality class.
WS: Today, is there one genre that is more popular than the rest?
KK: Well, trap is getting popular in the dance scene, but it's pretty varied right now. There's a good variation.
WS: Is there anything that has been on your mind recently about dance that you want to express, or a personal re-evaluation in your dance group?
KK: There's a couple of things: one that I’ve kind of struggled with a lot, is being able to make a living wage as an artist. I don't know if it's any better in a big city where you have more dancers and more competition. I mean, I don't have that much competition here, but the venues in which we can present our dances are limited, so the opportunity for work is not that great. I struggle with feeling like I work so hard on it, and if something were to happen, I may not be able to support myself on my art. I’ve put in 10-15 years, full-time, into my art form, and because I’ve been so passionate about my art I don't really have a backup. I went to massage school... but this is my career, and so I’m still trying to figure out how I can create a good financial foundation from my art, and what that means.
WS: Do you feel like that is partially because of this city?
KK: I know partially it's because of my own insecurity. I catch myself doubting myself a lot, so I know that that's one thing. Another thing is, because we do Tribal Fusion, it's not the most appropriate dance for weddings—and we do weddings a lot, but I think it's not traditional belly dance. And I feel like if there are traditional events like that, I often don’t get recommended, even though I can—and love—to dance to traditional music. The third part about it is that, as an artist, you’re not only creating your art, you're marketing yourself : you’re managing your students, you're managing your performance group. You’re doing all the Facebook and social media stuff— you wear many hats. I'm not always good at keeping up at all those things. I can’t do it all. We've been saying we’re going to do certain things for years, but we haven’t done it.
WS: Do you think there's something in the industry that needs to be shifted? With someone as successful as yourself, I feel like most dancers on the island would struggle.
KK: I feel (especially in the Tribal Fusion genre of dance), the ones that were in it from the beginning, they travel and get successful jobs. They were doing it at the right place, at the right time, and they’re totally amazing. Now that the dance form has grown and there are dancers all around the world, you don’t see as many from the second generation of Tribal Fusion dancers make it super big. It's still the core dancers, [they] are still very successful. When you see a dancer that's really doing well, its awesome because it just shows that there's prospect for new blood.
WS: So which generation of the Tribal Fusion lineage would you consider yourself?
KK: If you go up the lineage and start with Jamila Salimpour—as the original "Grandmother of Tribal", down to Carolina Nericcio, the founder of American Tribal Belly Dance, then down to Rachel Brice, Zoe Jakes, and Kami Liddle (my main teachers), who have been very influential in the Tribal Fusion movement—I would, then, be the fourth generation, or of the fourth limb (if looking at it as a family tree).
WS: Are you thinking about having more retreats in other places?
KK: This is the only one that I do, but Rachel (Brice) does one in Costa Rica, and Kalina Shakti does one in Bali. There are other retreats out there.—but, being from Hawaii, the Big Island is my backyard.
Thank you, Kalae, for your inspiring work, and for sharing with us the thoughts behind your craft!
Learn more about Kalae and Shakti Dance Movement HERE.
Follow her on Facebook for information on upcoming workshops & performances.
This interview was conducted by Alyssa Aparicio, Co-Founder and Creative Director of WildSpice Mag. Student, practitioner, instructor, and admirer of Sacred Dance.