~ The following was published in the summer issue of All About Her, a regional news magazine insert.
A ballerina and belly dancer, Ilima Ursomarso dances with fire, while spinning a hoop, or with a sword balanced on her head. As a professional dancer, a dance instructor, a movement arts therapist, a certified fitness trainer, and the director of Rhythm Fire Dance Company, Ursomarso has done it all. And it all started with hula, the ancient dance of her heritage.
Born in San Diego, the youngest of 5 daughters, Ursomarso’s father was Hawaiian and her mother is Aztec. Her paternal grandfather, a famous musician who played in the Benny Goodman band, introduced her to hula at the age of 3.
“It was a Sunday tradition to go to church and then to my grandmother’s house to eat something traditional, like Pork Lau Lau (pork cooked in banana leaves).” she explained. “My grandfather would get out his ukulele, sing in Hawaiian and have us dance. He taught us the basic moves and their meanings.”
In San Diego Ursomarso took ballet, tap, jazz, and modern dance, along with other young girls of her generation. She also connected with her first hula teacher. Describing the hula as “deeply sacred,” Ursomarso said, “There’s a lot of discipline to it with strict protocols to follow.”
Sadly, Ursomarso’s father died a month before she was born. Her mother eventually remarried and the family moved to Utah, where Uromorso started her first dance company at the young age of 15. At that time, the trailblazer also founded her high school’s first drill team, which won awards under her leadership.
Winning a full dance scholarship from the Southern Utah University, Ursomarso studied classical ballet and danced with the American Folk Ballet and Orchasis Modern Dance Company. She was encouraged to go on to New York to further her ballet career but decided against it because of the intense competitiveness that lifestyle involves.
Instead, she made use of her associate’s degree in dance and a master’s degree in social work by writing a grant that allowed her to launch a movement arts wellness program for the disabled and elderly. The program, called “Move it or Lose it,” was successful, but Ursomarso felt called to her father’s homeland, where many of her relatives lived.
Pregnant with her first child at the age of 28, she settled on the island of Kauia, where she met her husband Richie Ursomarso, a Floyd, Virginia, musician and organic farmer who was also living on Kauia at the time. On Kauia, she taught Middle Eastern belly dancing and began deepening her knowledge of hula, studying with renowned hula dance teacher Puna Kamama Dawson. “She’s been in National Geographic and Time magazine,” Ursomarso noted.
Explaining that hula is done ceremonially and not for entertainment, Ursomarso said, “My teacher gave me some scared cloth, which I wove while I chanted and prayed. That tied me into her lineage. It’s like a spiritual umbilical cord. I put that around my Pa’u, which is my skirt, and I can only wear it while hula dancing or chanting.”
Today, with 20 years of teaching experience behind her, Ursomarso and her family lives part time in Floyd and spends winters in Hawaii. She heads up the Rhythm Fire Dance Company, which she started when she came to Floyd in 2002.
“There are four elements to Rhythm Dance,” she outlined, “Middle Eastern belly dance, fire dance, hula, and the Talent Sprouts, my children’s dance program.” The Rhythm Fire Dance Company webpage describes the goal of the company as one that is “dedicated to offering a multicultural repertoire of dance classes and performances. Every class taught focuses on developing confidence and self-esteem within the students, giving dancers an acquired love and passion for movement.”
Ursomarso partners with other dancers for each component of the Rhythm Fire, except for the Talent Sprouts, which she heads up solo. The Talent Sprouts program includes classes in ballet, tap, jazz, gymnastics, and creative dance for children aged 2 – 12. The young troupe regularly performs under Ursomarso’s guidance in the community and at regional events, such as Floydfest music festival, and Local Colors – a Roanoke festival that promotes multi-cultural exchange.
At this year’s Floydfest (July 26-29) Ursomarso will be presenting a Sacred Hula Dance performance and workshop at the festival’s Healing Arts Village. She’s excited about starting her first Halau, a family of hula dancers, which will be called Hula I Ka La (Dancing in the Sacred Light).
As if dance, teaching, performing, and mothering her two children – 11 year-old Jahpa and 5 year-old Hawea – weren’t enough to keep her scheduled, Ursomarso and her husband also run a 100 member CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) on their Water Bear Organic Farm in Floyd County,.
Although Hula is the dance of her origin, Ursomarso can’t say which style of dance she most enjoys doing because she loves them all. “My teacher Puna tells me that you are where you are. When I’m in Hawaii all I want to do is Hula. Here in Floyd, I like to belly dance and dance with fire,” she said as she opened the trunk of her car and pulled out her fire fans and fire staff amid large bags of farm supplies.
“Dance transcends borders,” she said, demonstrating the sweeping fan movements that are part of the fire dance. “It bridges cultures. It builds community, and it’s a good way to make friends.” ~ Colleen Redman