Hawaiian at Heart

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

Success made Keli'i expansive. In January '99, he added a class in Houston. A month later, he wrote to request that his halau be allowed to compete someday at the hallowed Merrie Monarch. The festival's organizer offered Keli'i a spot for his men -- the men's categories are less competitive -- but Keli'i declined politely, saying that he couldn't leave the school's women at home. The festival then offered a women's spot as well.

Mainlanders have competed in the Merrie Monarch before -- Californian schools show up regularly -- but Keli'i's group would be the first east of California. And besides: Texans aren't just any mainlanders. In the popular imagination, Texans are cowboys and oilmen, gunslingers who declare that a town ain't big enough for the two of us. Texans possess a distinct spirit, but it's not the spirit of aloha. Aloha is about love, pity, kindness and unity with all human beings. Texans may understand love, but they're usually embarrassed to receive pity or kindness. And certainly, they're proud to be individuals, lone figures who stand tall and walk alone. How could they join a halau? How could they perform the hula? How could they ever understand Hawaii?

The novelty piqued the interest of the islands' TV and newspapers, which marveled at the Texans' dedication. In Hawaii, a student would complain about a 15-minute drive to his halau; in Texas, Keli'i's Houston students would wake at 4 a.m. to drive to an all-day class in Dallas or San Antonio. With equal astonishment, a reporter for the Honolulu Advertiser noted that in early spring, some of Keli'i's students wore socks to keep their feet from freezing against the cold floor of an elementary-school gym. In Honolulu, apparently, overcoming a cold tile floor constitutes proof of dedication; the exotic socks proved that the Texans were both foreign to the islands and serious about studying the dance.

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.

The Texas halau differed from Hawaii's in other ways, too. In Hawaii, students tend to be at least partially of Hawaiian descent; Keli'i likes to brag about his class's diversity. "We have Hawaiians, Caucasians, a black girl, Orientals," he says. "It's a rainbow."

In Hawaii, hula classes are for the young, between 15 and 25. Some of Keli'i's students fall into that range, but most are in their forties and fifties. Having people of all ages, Keli'i says, is actually more traditional: Ancient hula wasn't just for the young and buff.

Thirty-five of Keli'i's roughly 50 students -- ten men and 25 women -- could afford to fly to Hilo to compete in Merrie Monarch, and one of Keli'i's Dallas students offered to handle the travel arrangements. But in mid-March, a week before the halau planned to leave, the student told Keli'i that the Honolulu travel agent she was using had taken the $9,000 she'd entrusted to him. It was about a third of the group's travel money.

A TV reporter from KGMB, Honolulu's CBS affiliate, asked Keli'i to provide receipts showing the travel agent's perfidy, but when Keli'i asked his student, she couldn't produce them.

Keli'i grew suspicious. "Did you or did you not give the money to the agency?" he finally asked.

"No," she admitted. She'd used the money to pay off her own debts.

The story -- "Hula Sister Comes Clean!" is how Keli'i remembers it -- was played all over the Hawaiian evening news that March night, and even stretched into the next day's broadcast when American Airlines offered to fly the group and its supporters for whatever they could still afford.

The Texas halau "will be able to come home after all," wrote the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Even though some members of Keli'i's halau had never before been to Hawaii, they were considered to be coming home.

On Easter Sunday, Keli'i convened the group in Hilo to discuss what to do about the errant hula sister. Pixie Allison, one of the Houston dancers, had been among those hardest hit by the theft: Pixie had entrusted the woman to buy tickets for herself, her husband and four grown children. But Pixie was among the first to urge that the halau settle the matter the island way: Allow the woman a chance to return the money, and file charges only if she refused.

They gave her a week. "Aloha," Keli'i told an AP reporter, "only goes so far."

The money was returned.


The competition opened with solo dancers on the Thursday after Easter. The festival was sold out; even scalpers couldn't supply tickets. Those turned away could watch the proceedings broadcast live on the Internet or on the ABC affiliate, which pre-empted the network's sweeps-week prime-time programming.

First came the Miss Aloha Hula contest, for solo women. Jaclyn Abella, a 22-year-old from Fort Worth, represented the Texas halau. Keli'i thought she danced well, but the judges gave her low marks.

On Friday, during the traditional hula competition, the judges continued to grade the Texas halau hard, especially for its less-than-perfect synchronization. The audience didn't seem to mind. True to the deeper spirit of hula, the Texans were dancing from the heart. They were emotional, not robotic; synchronization is not a Hawaiian concept.

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