Hawaiian at Heart

One Texas hula school proves to skeptical islanders that dancers do sometimes wear socks

That Texas halau," the Hawaiians called Keli'i Chang's hula school. Everyone knew about the group: First, simply because they were Texan, mainlanders who'd somehow landed a slot the Merrie Monarch Festival. To outsiders, the competition is usually described as "the Olympics of hula." But that phrase is a cliché; and besides, it gives too much credit to the Olympics. On the islands, Merrie Monarch matters more.

This year the festival invited only 22 schools to compete. The entire island of Lanai went unrepresented, and even more surprising, so did Molokai, the birthplace of the hula and the most Hawaiian of the islands. "When the lavish Merrie Monarch Festival begins tonight in Hilo," wrote the Maui News, "observers might be startled to learn that the state of Texas -- better known for line dancing and cowboy hats than hula and lei po`o -- will bring as many halau to perform as all of Maui County."

Hawaii is famous for its warm welcome to guests, and Keli'i's students were invited guests, no less. But it's one thing to introduce Texans to your traditions; it's another thing entirely to have Texans dance your sacred dances and represent your culture.

Equal-opportunity hula school: Teenage, middle-aged, black, white, Asian, Keli'i Chang's students dispel the notion that the typical dancer is young and Hawaiian.
Deron Neblett
Equal-opportunity hula school: Teenage, middle-aged, black, white, Asian, Keli'i Chang's students dispel the notion that the typical dancer is young and Hawaiian.

When Keli'i (pronounced "Kay-lee-ee") was three, his family left Oahu, and he never again lived in Hawaii; instead, the family followed his army father wherever he was stationed. In Germany, Keli'i's mother, Elizabeth, was wretchedly homesick and began teaching her nine kids songs she remembered from the islands. In California, she taught them to dance. Keli'i adored it all, and set himself to absorbing more Hawaiian culture from his grandmother and various adopted "aunties" and "uncles."

Keli'i's family, like many Hawaiians, belonged to the Church of the Latter-day Saints, and at 21, he was dispatched to Spokane, Washington, as a missionary. People often got the wrong ideas about Mormons: They thought Mormons didn't dance or have a good time. So for a show, to lure people to the church, he began teaching his fellow missionaries the hula. The combination seemed unlikely -- Mormon missionary guys with leis instead of bicycles?! -- but the little group performed pretty well. Keli'i laughs: "And those were some of the whitest white boys you've ever seen."

He became, in a way, a hula missionary, teaching Hawaiian culture in the mainland. He worked as a flight attendant for American Airlines, and while based in Washington, D.C., he began teaching the hula to expatriate Hawaiians and anyone else who seemed interested. Transferred to Dallas, he started a school there. His Dallas halau spread to San Antonio, and last year, to Houston.

As the halau's kumu, or leader, Keli'i teaches the ways of the islands: hula, but also the chants, the language and the customs. Like Buddhism or ballet, hula is transmitted from teacher to student; no sacred texts preserve the customs, and different schools adopt different approaches. In old Hawaii, before the arrival of Captain Cook, the dance served mainly as an ornament for chanting, much of it religious. With a note of horror, Keli'i describes the ancient graduation ritual: The student or his teacher would pray a pig to death. They'd dress in their ritual costumes and chant at a perfectly healthy beast until its heart stopped. Then they cooked it.

Keli'i does not worship the old Hawaiian gods; his ancestors' bones are not buried in his yard. But he doesn't doubt the truth of that story. "In Hawaii," he says, "you have to be careful what comes out of your mouth. Your words are so strong, you could pray a pig -- or a person -- to death."

He doesn't know how to pray someone to death, and he doesn't want to know; he wouldn't want to be tempted by that power. And obviously, he doesn't teach his students those prayers. The chants and dances Keli'i teaches are compatible with the Hawaiian tradition he grew up with -- a real, living tradition, the kind that changes and adapts.

Thirty-seven years after Keli'i moved away from the islands, his voice still contains a laid-back island lilt. Muscular, tall and goateed, he looks ten years younger than he is, but his head is full of middle-aged thoughts. He ruminates about the fact that he has no children to pass his culture to, and about how his halau functions as a substitute, allowing him to keep his family's traditions alive. He thinks of himself as a Texan -- he has lived in Dallas longer than anywhere else -- but the message on his answering machine begins with "aloha" and ends with "mahalo."

Speaking to his class, Keli'i often refers to himself in third person. He says things like "Kumu can no longer do that" and "You gotta make sacrifices. Kumu makes sacrifices for you guys." The effect is unsettling at first, at odds with Keli'i's jokes and easy smile; but the implied distance between the kumu and his students is traditional, a way of underscoring the value of the teacher's knowledge, of asserting that students are not his equals and have something to learn.

In the summer of '97, Keli'i's halau, then divided between Dallas and San Antonio, flew to Hawaii to compete in the King Kamehameha Hula Competition. If Merrie Monarch is the Olympics of hula, King Kamehameha is the Pan-American Games, and Keli'i's halau took a highly respectable fourth place. The next year, the group's women placed fifth in the modern-hula division: another coup.

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