Hawaiian at Heart

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

Saturday was for the modern hula, the Texas halau's strong suit, and they prepared feverishly. Keli'i was sick that morning, so he stayed at the hotel while the students went into the mountains to pick foliage for their leis. Inexperienced at such things, they failed to pick enough, and realized the problem too late that afternoon to pick more. Two hours before they were scheduled to perform, some of the women began to cry. The family doing the group's catering volunteered to drive Keli'i to florists, and in the car, he began calling everyone in the phone book in search of the rare liko lehua flowers he needed. After 45 precious minutes, they found a lei maker with 21 liko lehua leis, exactly what the halau needed. Keli'i thought his problems were over.

They weren't.

When he returned, Keli'i heard that Pixie Allison's husband, David, had died that afternoon on Kahena Beach.

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 performed first, its men taking the stage at 6:30 p.m. Keli'i and his brother, Randy, sang a song about a hunter trying to kill a bird. At the dance's high point, the loin-clothed men blew through tubes (their "guns"), sending a glob of bright-colored feathers ("the bird") flying over the stage. The audience loved the gimmick and gave the group a standing ovation. The judges, once again, were less impressed.

The halau's women performed next, and the mood shifted abruptly. Before they took the stage, Keli'i made an unusual pre-performance announcement: Pixie's husband had died that afternoon, and out of respect, the halau would leave open her space on the stage. He dedicated the song to Pixie and her family.

Keli'i and his brother played ukuleles and sang, in Hawaiian, a slow song about a beautiful woman. The song is not normally mournful, but in context, it sounded that way. The dancers wore white leis, black pumps and purple strapless dresses with full skirts that swung like bells. And while dancing in that partylike attire, some of them cried.

Someone in the audience found a couple of boxes and took up a collection for the Allison family; it amounted to more than $2,000. When the women finished dancing, the halau received its second standing ovation. The judges, though, awarded only middling marks. Keli'i's speech had pushed the routine over its allotted seven minutes, and besides, the group's synchronization remained fitful.

But no one, anywhere, said the Texans lacked emotion.

On a Saturday in mid-June, the halau held its first Houston practice since Merrie Monarch. Pixie Allison was one of the first to arrive, and she wasn't surprised that by 10:30 a.m., when the class was supposed to begin, hardly anyone else had shown up. "Hawaiian time," she explained. As the other students drifted in, many gave her long, meaningful hugs.

Keli'i appeared around 10:45 a.m. A little after 11, he called the halau to order. The students held hands as he prayed, not to a deity of old Hawaii, but to "our heavenly father." When he finished, the students sat on the floor, careful not to let their feet disrespectfully face the kumu.

Keli'i talked about halau business, about this terrific new meeting space, a brand-new park building in northwest Houston, so shiny and clean that you could perform surgery on its floors. He described the halau's plans to return to Merrie Monarch this summer -- they'd been invited back! -- and said that this year, he'd demand even more of his students.

Finally, around noon, they began to dance. On a chalkboard, Keli'i wrote the Hawaiian words to a song he wanted the class to learn. "Uncle Lou" McCabe and his daughter, Sharon, played ukuleles while Keli'i sang the words in a sweet, clear tenor.

The song, he explained, is a tribute to Hilo. "Wasn't Hilo good to us?" he asked. Then he answered his own question: "Hilo was very good to us."

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