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She's a Pediatric Neurologist by Day. Come the Weekend, She's Teaching Hawaiian Dance.

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“In my mind I'm in Hawaii when I'm dancing and teaching. Medicine is so stressful, and we treat such sick kids, that I feel like if I don't find an outlet, it all weighs heavy on me. This gives me a reset every weekend.”


After stints in the military as a pediatric neurologist in training and practice, Dr. Lisa Smith found a way back to her childhood roots of Hawaiian culture. On weekends, she teaches hula and other forms of Hawaiian and South Pacific dance.

Like most pediatric neurologists, Lisa Smith, MD, has a busy schedule. She heads up the Pediatric Epilepsy Monitoring Unit, a six-bed unit at Indiana University School of Medicine's Riley Hospital; directs the hospital's Neurofibromatosis Clinic; serves as part of the multidisciplinary pediatric epilepsy surgery team and the Muscular Dystrophy Association multidisciplinary clinic; and is one of only two pediatric neurologists in the state of Indiana performing EMG and nerve conduction studies in pediatric patients. But on weekends, Dr. Smith's life is transformed from an intense child neurology practice in often-wintry Indiana to a dance practice inspired by the vibrant natural beauty of Hawaii. She doesn't hop on a plane—but as the director of Indy Hula, the leading organization for Hawaiian and South Pacific dance in the state, she brings Hawaii to Indiana!

Dr. Smith spoke to Neurology Today about what teaching dance means to her, her students, and her family. Dr. Smith's comments are excerpted and edited here.

How did you get started with hula?

My mother is from Chicago and my father is from Samoa, and we moved to Oahu when I was 4. The first thing my mother did was enroll me in dance class, not just for hula, but also for Tahitian, Samoan, and New Zealand dances, as well as traditional Filipino dances and belly dance. So rather than ballet school, I learned those kinds of dances as a little girl.

My first kumu (teacher) was the well-known teacher, composer, and recording artist John Pi'ilani Watkins, but most of my dance training was under the instruction of Kumu ‘Iwalani Tseu in Mililani, Hawaii. We appeared in the Pro Bowl and two airline commercials and performed for the Dallas Cowboys on a visit to Hawaii as well as numerous shows in Waikiki.

I went to USC for undergraduate school on an ROTC scholarship, and I didn't have much time for dance then. But then I returned to Hawaii for medical school, and my previous teacher asked me to start teaching little girls in her program. I found that I loved teaching and it was a great way to connect with my culture.

How did you end up practicing in Indiana?

Because of my ROTC scholarship, I owed the military eight years of service, four of which had to be active duty. I deferred that service while in medical school, but then I did my pediatrics residency at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, which was cool because I kind of grew up in that system. For the next four years, I was a military pediatrician, and had to move around. I was stationed in El Paso for two years, and then was deployed to Saudi Arabia. I didn't really do any hula there! Then I returned to Tripler as a staff pediatrician, where I headed up the well-child clinic.

I had gotten married right before medical school—my husband and I met in the Army. I had my son during medical school, and my daughter seven years later while I was a staff pediatrician at Tripler. Both my children have epilepsy, which inspired me to want to pursue neurology. There weren't any pediatric neurology residencies in Hawaii, so we moved to Indianapolis for my residency. My husband is originally from there and we thought that the kids could be near their other grandparents. I ended up falling in love with Riley Hospital for Children and wanted to stay here.

I did a brief detour back into the military after I completed that residency, though. The military got wind of losing a potential pediatric neurologist and offered to pay for my residency in Indiana, which meant that I owed them three more years of service. I was stationed in Germany at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. I was the only Army pediatric neurologist in all of Europe! There were only five of us at the time and they had stationed each one of us at their major medical centers. It was a little bit daunting, and I made a lot of calls to my mentors in Indianapolis. And that's when I really started dancing again.

Why did you start doing hula again at that time?

My kids were growing up, and I worried that they weren't going to learn about their Polynesian heritage. Somehow all of us Hawaiians at Landstuhl found each other and we started a dance group. We'd do performances for Asian Pacific Heritage Month in May. My daughter was 6 or 7 at the time, and she got really into dancing with the little kids. My son really wasn't interested in it at that time, though.

Why did you return to Indianapolis after completing your service?

I really love this children's hospital, and life on Hawaii is so expensive. I thought my children would have more available to them here. So we came back in 2007, when my daughter was turning 9 and my son was 15 or 16. These kids had moved roughly every two years while I was in the military, so I promised them we'd lay down roots.

When we moved back here, Indy Hula had just been established here in Indianapolis, with maybe five or six students. I said, “If there's hula, I'm going to start dancing!” Nine months later, the founder of Indy Hula, Kory Jones, decided to move back to Hawaii, and I took over the group. Over the years our group has expanded to our present count of more than 30 students ranging in age from 4 to 75 years old.

What is your hula schedule like?

We sublet a beautiful ballroom dance studio downtown—I've never danced in such a nice studio before! Since it's a sublet, we have to cram a lot of stuff into Saturday mornings from 7 am to 11:30 am. Generally, we start our Tahitian class at 7, and from 7-9 am we do just Tahitian or maybe some Samoan and Maori. These dances are a lot more physically demanding and you have to be in very good aerobic shape to do them. During the first hour we work on the basics of those dances, and then in the second hour we work on numbers. Between 9 and 9:30 am, I teach the little kids in their own class. They don't just learn hula, they learn the language too. One of the dancers who's been with me for a long time works with them on coloring sheets that teach them things like parts of the body and colors in Hawaiian. Then from 9:30-10:30 am is our beginner class, and from 10:30-11:30 am is our advanced dancers, those who do our shows. I expect a lot of those girls: they do hula, Tahitian, Maori, and Samoan. And in the beginner hour, we will also sometimes have culture days. I'll pick a topic and give a mini lecture, on something like Pele, the goddess of fire, or an aspect of Hawaiian language. This isn't just dance: it's a way of living. We learn that it is a sacred thing, and there is a proper protocol for dancing and sharing dances with other people. It looks pretty, but there's a lot of history around it.

Where do you perform?

All over—at festivals, parties, all kinds of events. In the summer, people hire us a lot for luaus and birthday parties. Indiana University did a wellness series for residents and asked me to come and teach hula, so I came in and taught one Friday for didactics. Two of those residents are now my dedicated students! I also teach hula at MDA camp, and my patients really get to see a different side of me!

What are the different dances like?

Tahitian dance has a lot of fast hip movements. There's also another Tahitian dance called ‘aparima, which has much more fluid hand movements and the feet movements are more like hula. Tahitians use drums more often; while Hawaiians do use drums, they more often use a gourd that gives the beat. The steps are often similar, but they have different names. The influence of the guitar and the ukulele led to the more modern hula.

Maori dancing is very different; they do a hand motion that looks like shivering, with the fingers. They don't move their hips and feet as much as hula dancers do. They do a lot of facial grimacing, because that was supposed to be used to intimidate opponents in war; you wouldn't see Hawaiians making faces like that.

The grass skirt was traditionally more of a Tahitian thing, pre-contact with the European missionaries. Hawaiian dancers were topless and may have worn a big wrapped cloth wrapped around their waist. Then the missionaries came and they were made to cover up, wearing fluffy Victorian-looking blouses and pantaloons under skirts. The traditional headwear wasn't so much the flowers we see today, but leaves and natural dyes from the earth.

Are your children involved in hula?

My daughter had been dancing with me since she learned in Germany, and just as my son was getting ready to graduate from high school, he decided to start dancing. I don't know what inspired him, but he really got into it! That spurred him to want to know more about his Polynesian side. So he ended up majoring in linguistics, Japanese, and anthropology, and moved to Hawaii for two years to get his master's in linguistics. He then moved back here to pursue a PhD in linguistics focusing on Polynesian language, and he still dances. Both he and my daughter go to school an hour away in Bloomington at IU, but they'll still come home on the weekends to dance.

And they got me to bring hula to Indiana University! They had friends who wanted to learn it, and I told them, “Find me a place, get me the students, and I'll come.” That was almost two years ago, and now I go down there every other Friday evening when I finish clinic to teach hula.

What does hula and Polynesian dance mean to you?

It keeps me connected to my roots and where I grew up. And it's my escape on the weekends from sad and stressful things that happen. In my mind, I'm in Hawaii when I'm dancing and teaching. Medicine is so stressful, and we treat such sick kids, that I feel like if I don't find an outlet, it all weighs heavy on me. This gives me a reset every weekend. I go to hula, get in the right frame of mind, and I can go on the next week with my soul restored and take care of patients. It's always been my refuge.

The other bonus is that it's really a family thing. I have girls in my class who have grown up and are having babies, and their babies are coming to hula. We don't just do hula together and dance. We have movie nights at my house, or go out to eat. There's always the cliché about ‘ohana’ in the movies, but it's true. We're like family. We raise each other's kids. We miss the connectedness we had back home, we keep searching for it here, and we find it in each other. We have similar values and beliefs coming from the island, and so we build that here. So what if it's snowing outside—let's watch hula inside. But it's not just people with Hawaiian roots. I have several ladies who have no ties to Hawaii and it's funny how much they love it. One lady said, “I just feel so good when I came to this class, I don't know how to describe it.” I totally understand.

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