Bringing the Aloha spirit to Tucson

Niki G. of the Biblio Lotus Team had the honor of observing a hula class taught by Ualani Abad of Halau Hula O Ualani and interviewing her and her daughter, Kanani, who also teaches hula at their school. Their classes take place at Movement Culture Studios in the Sam Hughes neighborhood on 6th Street.  Movement Culture’s website states that its center is “Tucson’s hub for cultural movement & dance” and that it “promotes diversity and inclusivity by offering a variety of dance styles, classes, and community events to celebrate and honor the beautiful cultural backgrounds of Tucson and beyond.”   

Kumu (Teacher) Ualani has been teaching hula in Tucson for 25 years.  Her “real” name is Helenjoyce, her Hawaiian name is Ualani, and her nickname is “Girlie”.  She was born and raised in Waianae on the Hawaiian Island of O’ahu, moved to San Diego, California in 1972 where she started hula dancing, and came to Tucson, Arizona in December 1992.   

Ualani and her daughter, Kanani, discussed the art of hula dance, the history of their halau (school), and the importance of preserving Hawaiian culture. 

When did you start teaching hula classes?

Ualani: 1994.  I was dancing with my Uncle Ernie Menehune, and he's been here since the 1960s. When I moved here in 1992, I met up with him and he asked me to dance with his group. He was a famous Hawaiian singer, and he traveled all over Hawai’i to the Mainland. I started dancing with him in the Menehune Polynesian Review when I started getting back into hula.  We performed in California, Las Vegas, Arizona, and Denver. Wherever people heard about us, Uncle Ernie would send us to wherever there was a good show.  His daughter, who was dancing with us, had the halau first. Then, in 1994, when she left to move out of state, she gave me the school.  So, I started teaching then and never stopped!  And then my daughters, who also danced hula in San Diego, started coming this way. Kanani came in 2000 and my other daughter came in the 1990s with her dad and now three of us are in Arizona and we all teach.  Kanani’s daughter and my other grandkids are also in hula.   

What are the benefits of hula dance?

Ualani:  I give the students memory, coordination, and muscle toning. I give them the camaraderie of being with other haumana (students) and I make sure there is unity in hula and halau, so not just the physical but also the spiritual part of it and everything is combined the way we teach it. It’s really based on the Aloha, which means the love that we have for the islands.  Since we don’t live in Hawai’i, we have to bring the Aloha here. There are different styles like kahiko, which is the ancient style of Hawaiian dance. Kahiko is harder to do and it is very vigorous and really “strong.”       

Kanani:  Kahiko tells a lot of stories from the ancient past, telling the stories from King Kamehameha, Queen Emma, Queen Lili’uokalani—that’s where it started. Hula ‘auana, the softer style, didn’t come until later. Kahiko was banned when [missionary] men came to Hawai’i and was revived under King Kalākaua. The newer, more contemporary style of hula is still telling the stories from the past and we’re always bringing it back to the islands, no matter what style we’re dancing. 

You perform at Tucson Meet Yourself and the Arizona Aloha Festival in Tempe, Arizona.  What does the Aloha Festival consist of? 

Kanani:  Aloha Festival is the third week of March in Tempe and Tucson Meet Yourself in Tucson is October 5th and 6th this year.  The Aloha Festival consists of Polynesian and Hawaiian culture. Dances from hula, Somoan to Tongan and Tahiti—they do a very big show there. All the schools around Arizona come together. It's a 5000 people weekend! They bring all the traditional Hawaiian foods and there is a lot of shopping, like you're in Hawai’i, so you can buy flowers, lava-lavas (sarong) etc. 

Ualani:  People come [to the festival] from all over like California, Vegas, Utah.

Is there an aspect of Hawaiian culture that you feel the community should know more about or should be educated about?

Kanani: I think about when it comes to the history of the Hawaiian Islands and how it was taken over,  how the people were stripped of their land, many people just think that Hawai’i is this beautiful island that everybody can go and visit, but they don't realize that a lot of investors are taking a lot of the land, so there's not much left for native Hawaiians, who have homesteads that were passed down from family to family. A lot of pure Hawaiians can’t live there because it’s very expensive to live.

Ualani: So that's why we migrated to where there were jobs. 

Kanani: They’re slowly bringing back the culture, and they brought the Ōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) back. Now they have many schools and are teaching the future generations the culture and language and they are now fluent in speaking the Hawaiian language. Now that they expanded to online classes, we are learning since we’re not in Hawaii. So thankful for the internet to have these courses for those who aren’t living in Hawaii or who don’t have the background in Ōlelo Hawaiʻi. There are Hawaiians living here who speak to each other in Ōlelo Hawaiʻi and there are Samoans and Tongans who live in the communities here who speak their own languages.  

Are there books about Hawaiian culture that you recommend?

Ualani: Yes, the one that I really liked is Aloha Betrayed (full title Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism by Noenoe Silva).  It tells the whole story from newspaper clippings and gives a lot of history of what was written and documented in the newspapers back in the 1800s.  When it comes to us now, it was like we didn’t know things about our history. It was like “we didn't know that Queen Lili’uokalani did this” or “King Kalākaua did that.” So, this book isn’t about someone who just “said it”, it is documented in the historical newspapers. My mother lived in the 1920s and we were still going through all of that with the colonization of Hawai’i and how come my mother never told me?  And it’s the Hawaiian newspaper telling the story, not the colonized people telling it, and it was written in Ōlelo Hawaiʻi, so colonized people couldn’t translate it at the time. Even though it's thirty to forty years later from when I left Hawaii, it was so recent.  From 1898 to 1998, we were still in this colonization, and I didn't know that.  

A lot of indigenous groups are finding more truth about their history. Then movies like Killers of the Flowers Moon come out that create more awareness.  

Ualani: And that’s why native Hawaiians and Indians are so close. They’re close in spiritual beliefs and closely connected.

When your kids take over the school, will the name change? Or are you all going to keep the name?

Ualani: I did tell her that my uncle Ernie, before he passed, since he is the only man who has the name Menehune, he said, “you promise me that you will always carry my name.” I don’t care if they change the other words, but it has to always include the Menehune dancers. It is because of the Menehune dancers, which started in 1993, that we are here today. These girls were the ones who attracted all these others who saw us dance. So many people saw us and didn’t know we were there and asked to learn.   

Kanani: We don’t advertise. Everything is word of mouth based on shows that we have done at a birthday party, or corporate, or a show at Aloha Festival or Tucson Meet Yourself. That’s where we gather the majority of our new students. Every year we hold an open registration to anyone who wants to do hula with us. Mom started out in her little house with five girls and in a couple of years, she had too many students and she didn’t have room and they had to dance in the road in front of her house. Then we got a studio that we were in for a little bit, and then Bryan from Movement Culture Studio saw us and gave us an opportunity to share the culture. 

Is there anything else you want to share about the dance classes or Hawaiian culture that I didn’t ask?

Kanani: We just really love what we do. We love to share a lot. My mom has two students who have been with her since the beginning, for over 30 years. These two women have watched me and my kids grow up. This is our ohana, our family. A lot of halau are different from others, but my mom wants to bring that love and Aloha to everybody. And it's what you feel in class that you take out of class, too, and you utilize that within your community.