A Movement of Creativity, Soul and Richness On Display in Campus Center
By Morgan Tate, Arts & Community Editor
Modern dance appeared in the mid 20th century and flourished in retaliation against prevalent, strict dance styles like ballet. Modern style lead dancers “transcend boundaries of nationality, gender, and race,” according to the New World Encyclopedia definition of modern dance. However, some people feel that modern became so abstract that the ‘storytelling’ of dance had been lost.
Earnest T. Morgan’s dream was to “bring the heart back into modern dance,” said his assistant, Trina Nahm-Mijo. In 1974, Morgan started a dance community that had heart with, “the richness of ethnic culture integrated into modern.” He, along with Nahm-Mijo and many others, began the Big Island Dance Council later becoming the UH Hilo Dance Council to bring back the beauty and joy of dance to Hawaii.
Morgan began at Waipahu High School in O’ahu before being accepted to study theater at Northwestern. After gaining his undergraduate, he danced at Paul Taylor. Nahm-Mijo went to graduate school at UC Berkeley and met Morgan in 1972. They both wanted to return to Hawaii and start a dance company. Both were passionate to create a dance form that was a hybrid between cultural and modern dance.
Nahm-Mijo moved back to The Big Island in 1975 and danced with him for four years as he worked in a time of what some might call a “Hawaiian Renaissance.” It was the beginning of the artist community, particularly in Volcano. State Director of Culture and Arts Alfred Price introduced Boone Morrison and Morgan in 1974. This led to Morrison creating the Volcano Arts Center while Morgan began a series of dance retreats in Volcano that drew dancers and artists from around the island. “Because of the energy at the Volcano, it was like a magnet. Lots of artists moved there,” said Nahm-Mijo. “But we can’t do it anymore because the parks won’t let us.” On one of the last retreats in 1984, Judith Jamison came to Volcano to talk story.
Morgan began teaching classes at UH Hilo in 1974. Nahm-Mijo mentioned that, Dance, A Gift that Lives On A Movement of Creativity, Soul and Richness On Display in Campus Center Arts and Community Editor Morgan Tate “Anyone who met him kind of fell in love with him.” He held 400 dance classes for students K-12 in the school, including both public and private lessons. “He was so charismatic,” Nahm-Mijo said, noting that he often had 60 or more students in his classes. He taught hip-hop, modern, hula and African dance. Edith Kanaka’ole called his personal style “African Hula”. Morgan taught his students to return to the ‘aina with dance, as Auntie Edith taught him. He believed that dance was an expression of mana, the life energy that flows through all things.
Morgan passed away in 1992, but his legacy lives on. An art exhibit of the UH Dance Council’s 40th anniversary is being held as UH Hilo’s Upstairs Gallery in Campus Center Room 301. Nahm-Mijo and her fellow dancers performed at the exhibit opening on Jan. 12, dancing a ‘modern hula’ piece. Dance 40/22: The Legacy Continues is open from Jan. 12 through Feb. 12, so visitors can explore the history of Morgan’s school of dance. The exhibit portrays photos and memorabilia.
Even in death, Morgan’s legacy lives on in his students. One of these students is Kea Kapahua, a jazz teacher and current lecturer at the UH Hilo Campus.