By Diane Urbani de la Paz
For Peninsula Woman
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SANDI MAHINA LAZZARO teaches hula classes at the Sequim Senior Activity Center, 921 E. Hammond St., at 10 a.m. Saturdays; also, between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. Saturdays, she is placing names of interested women on a list for a beginning hula class to be offered in the future. The cost in Sequim is $4 per class for senior center members and $6 for non-members.
Lazzaro also leads hula classes at the Port Angeles Senior Center, 328 E. Seventh St., at 12:05 p.m. Tuesdays, at a cost of $7 per session.
For details on these, phone 360-809-3390.
Today at 3 p.m., Lazzaro will lead Na Hula Ó Wahine ‘Ilikea, her Sequim-based hula dance group, in a free performance adjacent to the Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts street fair outside the Vern Burton Community Center, 308 W. Fourth St. at Peabody Street.
Then at 5 p.m. today, dancers of all levels are invited to a hula workshop inside the Vern Burton center; the session is part of the Juan de Fuca Festival lineup, so participants must purchase passes to the festival. For details, see www.JFFA.org.
“Take your time,” says the breeze, also known as Sandi Lazzaro.
She’s the hula teacher who leads classes weekly for women at the Sequim and Port Angeles senior centers, and who will appear twice today at the Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts.
First, Lazzaro will give a performance with her Sequim dancers at 3 p.m. outside the Vern Burton Community Center at Fourth and Peabody streets, and then she’ll teach a hula class at 5 p.m. on the workshop stage just inside the Vern Burton center. Simple steps will culminate, she promises, in an ‘auana, a modern hula dance.
Lazzaro’s dancers are called Na Hula Ó Wahine ‘Ilikea, a Hawaiian name loosely translated as fair-skinned women dancing hula together. She teaches not only the steps and the confidence needed to realize them, but also the philosophy that the women are hula sisters, moving together, with grace, through the world.
Lazzaro herself is a Washingtonian all the way; she began studying dance as a 7-year-old in Renton. She has learned hula history, how to design and makes hula costumes, and how to chant in Hawaiian.
Her kumu hula — her teacher, or source of knowledge — gave her the Hawaiian name Mahina, or moonlight — and she now has the radiant silver tresses to match.
For these dancers, hula isn’t merely a form of low-impact exercise. It’s an expression of one’s inner grace and a way to free mind and body.
“We are gracious ladies,” Lazzaro says, smiling with pride. She and her dancers are age 50 to 81, and coming into their own. They’ve led busy lives, caring for children, working inside and outside their homes — and had scarce time to nurture themselves, until now.
Lazzaro understands this well: As a single mother, she raised three sons while running Sandi’s School of Dance in Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island. She taught tap, jazz and swing, plus ballet and Hawaiian, she choreographed shows at the local theater company and taught dance at the local senior center.
“That’s what started my love of older people,” she says, adding that seniors’ zest for life and dancing continues to give her inspiration.
After 14 years on the island, Lazzaro moved on to the next era of her life, to Kent to help care for her mother, the late Edella Petersen. She also met the man whose passion paralleled her own: Joey Lazzaro, a jazz trumpeter who, in addition to his career with the Boeing Co., played in jazz festivals around the country.
She remembers the first time she heard him.
“He was up there on that stage,” she says, “playing that horn from the bottom of his feet, and his heart” — and she knew. There was a man who understood how music makes a body feel.
“I said, ‘I want to meet him,’” and it didn’t take long for the two to hit it off. But at that time, Joey was living and working in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, Boeing moved him out West, “and I called her,” he remembers.
The Lazzaros have been married nearly 11 years now. Joey, watching his wife teach hula at the Port Angeles Senior Center on a recent Tuesday afternoon, didn’t soft-pedal his admiration.
“She instructs without alienating,” he said, adding that when she leads groups of women at varying levels of experience, she knows how to correct missteps without singling out a particular dancer.
Joey likens this to teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, where the students are all over the age spectrum. He admits he doesn’t know how his wife does it.
Of course, all of the teaching and practicing take considerable time.
“I listen to a lot of Hawaiian music around the house,” Joey said.
And the phone rings often with calls from students who, while practicing at home, need a little guidance.
Joey doesn’t begrudge her any of it.
“I try to enable her to follow her passion. It makes me happy to see her happy,” he says.
Then again, Joey plays trumpet in “10 or 11” bands on the North Olympic Peninsula.
If one of those groups, such as the Peninsula College Jazz Ensemble, plays an outdoor concert, Lazzaro may be seen dancing out in the crowd. Even if she’s still seated on the grass, she’ll sway and clap her hands, reveling in the music.
“She is a great dancer,” Joey says. “She is a tremendous lady.”
Lazzaro, for her part, is following her bliss.
“The music speaks to me. [Hula] is a form of dance where you can comfortably and safely lay out your heart and soul,” she says.
“The songs tell stories, so your whole body is the instrument,” for the telling. “Your heart and your mind elaborate the story.”
Lazzaro also loves tap and jazz dancing, but for women of a certain age, she believes hula is generally better on the body. And with the music and the company of other women, she says, this dance is food for the soul and mind.
“Hula is probably one of the healthiest dances you can do for your body,” adds Vickie Dodd, a therapist, musician and one of Lazzaro’s Port Angeles students. “It makes you feel beautiful. You start feeling sensual — not sexual — sensual. You need that,” for good health.
Lazzaro has witnessed a change in her students as they have learned hula.
Four years ago, when she first offered classes at the Sequim Senior Activity Center, she thought she might see half a dozen women. Twice that many showed up; some brought their granddaughters, so septuagenarians danced beside teens.
Some of her students first walked in with heads and shoulders low — and as Lazzaro led them into the world of dance, she has watched them bloom.
In addition to the basics, she teaches stage presence: how to enter and exit, and how to share the essence of hula with the audience.
Lazzaro’s feeling about teaching, she says, is “you have to pass it forward.”
So she and her dancers go to nursing homes and retirement centers, where residents, entranced, tell her how seeing the hula performance took them back to Hawaii, where they honeymooned decades ago.
Lazzaro also led a noho — seated — hula class at Prairie Springs Assisted Living in Sequim, and plans to return for more sessions.
“You should see the smiles on their faces,” as they sit and dance, she says.
Lazzaro plans to have about 20 dancers performing with her today at the Juan de Fuca Festival. They’re from Sequim, and many have been dancing since she began teaching at the senior center some four years ago, soon after she and Joey moved from Auburn to the North Olympic Peninsula.
“I’m a dancer first,” she says. “Hula is an art form I also learned,” as a young girl.
Lazzaro adds that as proprietress of her dance studio, she had “the best of both worlds,” immersing herself in dance as her profession while raising her family.
Her sons Brad and Troy still live on Whidbey Island; Ty lives in Everett, and Lazzaro has five grandchildren.
And she does not regret choosing motherhood over a career performing in, say, Las Vegas or New York City. Lazzaro doesn’t believe it’s her nature to seize the spotlight.
Then as now, teaching dance “is not a job. It’s a joy.”
As for the future, Lazzaro hopes to assemble another performing troupe; she would love to teach tap dancing to senior women, along with some musical comedy and dances from the 1930s and ’40s, so the troupe could present a variety show.
Lazzaro is seeking a place to teach tap; then again she would also like to serve as facilitator for existing dance groups who want to combine their styles in a stage revue.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for performing here,” from festivals to retirement homes, Lazzaro adds.
“The hula fell into place rapidly and first,” with its flowing moves and spirit of sisterhood.
“Hula calls to a specific place,” Lazzaro says. “It calls out the heart.”