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.
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

Hawaiian at Heart

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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