Playing with Nancy Dance Plenty

 “It looks like the surface of the moon,” I thought as my small prop plane approached Kailua Kona airport on the island of Hawai’i. All I could see around the landing strip were stark black lava fields from Hualalai mountain down to the Pacific Ocean. My new girlfriend, Nancy, had lured me to the Big Island with promises of a tropical paradise and a teaching job in a small private school. Surprisingly, coming to Hawai’i was not an easy decision and I expected much more tropical beauty than I could see out of the aircraft window. I had no idea then that I would spend the next 36 years living on planet earth’s most remote archipelago.

My views changed rapidly when, on the drive to her home, we stopped to swim at mile long Hapuna beach and ride a few choice waves. Later, that first afternoon, we jumped a few gates with ‘private keep out’ signs and walked across a cow pasture and slithered down a bank to a pristine waterfall and pool. Following a sweet swim we gathered a quart of magic mushrooms on the way home and everything after was blissfully idyllic. 

Nancy and her two great young kids, Harmony and Raven, lived in an old plantation workers sugar shack, on the side of a historic river gulch where King Kamehameha the Great grew up.  It was located in ancient North Hawaii were the lava had broken down to create deep rich soil. Much of the land had been used to grow sugar but, since the recent closure of the plantations, cattle ranching had taken over, unemployment was rampant and the once bustling town was mostly shuttered and as silent as a ghost town. 

All around Nancy’s yard was an abundance of food crops like mangos, breadfruit, passion fruit, papayas and avocados which had become my favourite subsistence foods in the West Indies.  One of my first impressions of local Hawaiian life was the shock of seeing piles of fruits rotting on the ground around enormous food trees in our neighbours yards. In my four years living in the Caribbean l had never seen a single piece of fruit wasted, people there were way too hungry.

I learned from Nancy that prior to the illegal overthrow of the monarchy, and colonisation by the U.S.A., the Hawaiian Kingdom had been totally self sufficient in food production for 1,500 years.  After the best agricultural land was taken for plantations, and indentured labourers were imported to grow sugar, pineapples, bananas, macadamia nuts and coffee, by the 1980’s about 95% of all food in Hawaii was imported. Island residents joined the rat race and had no time for their own gardens. Small family farms were marginalised and almost everyone preferred the convenience of supermarket shopping so they largely ignored the foods of their ancestors and left most of it to rot on the ground. Amazing !

On my second night in Hawaii l drove with Nancy down to Hilo, the island’s main town and listened as she played her fiddle accompanying Bosco, the Amazing One man Band. This eccentric musician sings accompanied by guitar, banjo, mandolin, harmonica or trumpet and adds keyboard bass played with his bare feet. He is a most unique individual respected island wide for his musical skills and philosophical stoned ramblings. Nancy later toured me around the island visiting her friends and we stayed with Bosco in Naalehu. He and I connected well, I started booking him for parties and he later became legendary as the house band at all our Bellyacres events and many Hawaiian juggling festivals.   

My first connection with Nancy was juggling with her at the Courtney Music Festival in British Columbia and my life changed dramatically when she later bought me a set of juggling clubs for Christmas. l became obsessed with the art of ‘throwing and catching with style and grace’ and the avoidance of serious physical injury.  Pretty soon l was seeking out other jugglers to pass clubs with and she introduced me to a couple who lived in Puna. Whenever l could l would get together with Patra and Scotty to practice my newly found art even though they lived a hundred miles away. l became a juggling addict quite quickly and as a result of meeting Nancy my life was forever changed. On all my travels with Nancy and the kids to the beach, to work, on mountain hikes and even on shopping trips I took juggling clubs and balls. Everywhere I could find a spare moment to practice I worked on reducing my drops and increasing my repertoire of simple tricks.  I loved it and Nancy was very supportive and often played along with me.

Nancy’s humble home was a hub for friends visiting the island and I made many long term friendships through her. Beth the Canadian clairvoyant, Lasensua and Susie Osbourne, Windsong and David are but a few. Nancy was an excellent cook, making her own tofu weekly, and she hosted many fun birthdays and dinner parties, including one for my cousin and her husband visiting from England.

For a short time I was hired as a class teacher at Hana Haouli, a private School situated in Kapa’au, North Kohala  but due to budget cuts I was forced to find other employment. I tried running a business for a couple of years making macadamia nut butter but it really wasn’t for me. Nancy was also a teacher and coerced me into my first public juggling presentation at one of her school gatherings where I learned the importance of having lots of funny drop lines because ‘to juggle’ means ‘to drop.’ More performances followed and I even managed to include Harmony and Raven in my act.

In the summer of 1982 we traveled to British Columbia visiting friends on the gulf islands then stopped in California, where I bought my first fire clubs, and continued to the UK to visit my family. I remember waiting outside while Nancy could enjoy browsing through shops at Portobello Road market in London. I broke out my new fire clubs and while she spent a few dollars I made a few pennies demonstrating my rudimentary skills to a public who luckily, at that time, had apparently never been exposed to any decent jugglers. It was my first attempt at busking and I was pretty terrible!

On our return to the islands I discovered that Scott’s girlfriend had left and he persuaded me to take her place in a birthday party show he had booked in Kona. I was petrified because I was terrible at learning lines, had no acting experience and suffered from a serious case of stage fright. Somehow, I stuttered and muddled my way through and Scott invited me to do a few more parties where I learned a lot about interactive juggling routines and busking style banter. I even got paid a few dollars and a fair amount of Puna butter.

In those early days in Hawaii Nancy and I spent a lot of time on the amazing beaches around the island and always juggled. As my skills improved so did the audience who stopped to watch me practice. Inevitably, within minutes, like bees to a honey jar, I’d have one or two and often more kids gawking curiously at me.  Then I’d drop and they’d rush forward to gather and toss me the ball or club and the bravest would ask ‘let me try’ ‘how do you do that?’ or ‘is that easy?  

The months went by repeating this pattern until, after two years of endless spontaneous sessions with ad hoc kids, juggling had become a regular means for me connecting with children. Without any planning I found myself once again back in the teacher role and this time I really loved it. I had reunited with my purpose in life.

Nancy knew lots of great places and people on the big island. She introduced me to friends in Puna and Ka’u and we hiked to several secret camping spots. Life was easy and fun.

Most weekends we hung out on a private beach in Puako Bay, camping with some boating friends. I bought a 16′ Hobi cat which was quite thrilling once we exited the bay and got bashed about in the waves. It had a habit of turning turtle, snagging on the reef and taking me with it!

It was in Puako that we hooked up with Duncan who invited us to sail in his 26′ sloop to Kauai. I crewed for him across the the Alenuihaha Channel the 30 mile channel between the Big Island and Maui which has a scary reputation for billowing winds, giant waves and strong currents. Duncan was smart, we waited for calm weather, hugged the coast line to the northern point of the island and then took the roller coaster ride across the open water. Nancy joined us in Lahaina and we cruised to the north shore of Molokai beneath the tallest sea cliffs in the world. The spectacular sheer walls, rising to nearly 4,000ft, are stunning, deep, velvety and emerald green dotted with waterfalls and wild goats. After stops at historic Kalapapua village and Kanehoe Bay we made it to Hanalei on my birthday dodging the last of the humpback whales on their way to summer in Alaska.

Hanalei Bay 1982

My time living with Nancy ended in 1984 for a couple of reasons but her main point was that l was not spiritual enough. She really got me thinking. Admittedly, l described myself as an agnostic, was skeptical about Nancy’s astrology readings and didn’t resonate with any hippy alter adorned with crystals and pictures of spiritual leaders from foreign cultures. But, l had experienced what l considered to be spiritual moments, particularly while blue water sailing, hiking and camping far from civilisation. Additionally, l had a strong belief in humanity believing that we are minute parts of a much greater whole.

Challenged by Nancy’s assertions l surrendered to testing out her claims in a way that she would accept and l allowed a clairvoyant to do an automatic writing for me. She started the session by inviting me to ask a question.  I said, “Do l need to find a spiritual path, if so which one(s)?”  She wrote it down closed her eyes and apparently went into a trance. Squiggles and circles and random designs appeared on page one as she wrote. After nine further pages my answer came loud and clear. 

“Graham your whole life is a spiritual practice. You are working through your journey with love, joy and understanding. You are not needing to find a spiritual path but you are able to find many ways of being in the world and these ways will change continuously. You do not have to have a set way of being but you do have to acknowledge your teachers as they come along for they will be very valuable in your growth……. You are able to totally care for yourself in your journey, you do not need support on the level of a discipline. It would only slow you down……….Graham you are a man who has been dancing on the edge of life for years and your only responsibility is to see how the dance affects others and to recognise the part you play, playfully. Be aware of your influence on others and recognise the meaning of your dance. Graham you have earned your dance so live it in full understanding learning as you go. Graham, we want to say without hesitation that your life is a spiritual path and that you are walking down it.”

Rather than viewing this revelation as pure hocus pocus l chose to fully embrace the message and it gave my life direction in many ways over the next three decades. It also gave me the confidence to trust in myself and ‘my dance’ and while l read and listened to many teachers it gave me the confidence to believe that l did not need to become a follower of any faith. Nancy, already ‘the dancer’, had no idea when she challenged my spirituality how it would manifest into a secular belief that guided and has empowered my future life.        

Nancy moved to Maui in the ’90’s, to follow her heart, and our paths only crossed twice after that, by chance, at a canoe race in Hilo Bay and at Mahukona Beach Park in 2012. I was on a camping trip across island with my family and she was spreading the ashes of a dear friend. It was a remarkable co-incidence for us both to be there at the exact same time – or were we dancing to the same song? Nine months later Nancy died from cancer.

A week after her death the HICCUP circus was performing at the Kohala Aina Festival and we camped out in Halawa gulch where the ghosts of my times with Nancy returned to haunt me. Back then, I had spent a lot of time cruising along the gulch seeking out avocados, macnuts, lilikoi and other fruits. On this trip I hiked the same trails under the full moon, with my wife Dena, to revisit the remains of the sugar shack in which I had lived with Nancy. The next day I stood before the festival audience and dedicated our HICCUP show to the memory of ‘Nancy Dance Plenty’ and it was one of our very best.

HICCUP circus show for Nancy

I thought my connection to Nancy and to her kids was ended forever but I was wrong. Three years later while on a visit to Maui I was blown away to bump into Harmony who was visiting from California. It was a huge, unbelievable coincidence but was topped the very next day. Dena and I drove 92 miles along windy twisting roads to visit the tiny tourist town of Hana. After much deliberation we chose to eat lunch at a Thai food vendor. As we stood in line discussing our order the person in front of us turned around, it was Harmony!!!!! The outdoor diner we had chosen was – unknowingly to us- located right on the land where Nancy had lived and died. Her beautiful and powerful renegade spirit had called me back – perhaps to laugh at my rejection of her astronomy/crystal voodoo magic.

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Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

2 thoughts on “Playing with Nancy Dance Plenty

  1. Hi Graham,
    I was friends with Nancy from the time we met in the Kootenays. I visited North Kohala and stayed in that house several times, I also painted it. Harmony has the original now. We had many adventures until her passing, so sad.
    I’m writing because Nancy mentioned to me that you had a cousin in England. I grew up near Croydon and went to school there. Afterwards I joined up with a group of friends who were late beats, early hippies; we drank in the local pubs, wrote poetry, smoked hash and went partying together. Bill Ellis was one of them, known as Milkman Bill – seems we all had nicknames then. After I moved to British Columbia in 1971, several of those friends came to visit me and Bill was one of them. I had a prospector tent and we camped on a deserted beach on Kootenay Lake. The lads bought an old truck from some Doukhobors which turned out to be a lemon, but we made it round the mountains in fits and starts before it finally died. Sorry to say Bill is also gone, I think before Nancy, it was some time ago, but I’m still in touch with those guys and now able to reminisce about our adventures.
    If you send me your email address, I’ll send you a photo of Bill with some of those lads back in England. I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that you were a friend of Nancy’s, and what a small circle we are somehow!!!
    Cheers and Aloha!
    Rosalinde

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Graham,
    Thanks so much for sharing this. Nancy was my mentor and a huge inspiration to me. I really enjoyed the story and pictures. She touched many lives, and I believe she’s dancing and juggling and paddling and loving us from above ❤

    Liked by 2 people

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