I’m co-owner and lead instructor of Antioch’s Mau Loa Ohana Hawaiian and Tahitian Dance Studio, so my students initially imagine that I’m a “wahine” — a native Hawaiian woman.
Hula is the Hawaiian word for “dance.” Through hula we speak about God, the beauty of the world, or of people. The Hula movements tell stories about happy events or broken hearts. The dance is sensual and lovely. People feel they are more beautiful while dancing the hula. A dancer may be growing older or putting on weight, but the graceful movement of the dance can take her to an emotional and spiritual place where she feels herself to be graceful and desirable.
On a more prosaic level, hula movements are great exercise. It’s all about hips so the dances provide workouts focusing on stomach fat. A friend recently told me that hula makes dancers shine rather than sweat. It feels good whatever you call it.
My Mau Loa Ohana program offers classes every night, Monday through Saturday, and private lessons on demand. We provide a full schedule of Cardio Hula, adult lessons, children’s lessons, men’s lessons, and sessions for beginners of all ages. We teach all levels of Tahitian dance, as well. Tahitian is a similar dance style to hula, but the movements are faster and even more sensual. A Samoan named Fos Fiame teaches the men’s hula lessons. Fos grew up dancing. He met me when he brought his daughter for lessons.
My daughter Alexsandra was shy growing up and displayed none of the passion for hula that her little sister Kiana had from her first contact. However, Alexsandra began lessons when she was 18 years old, developed into one of my best dancers, and now teaches our preschool hula classes. Her sister Kiana teaches a Tahitian Class.
Hula can be medicine for a sore heart and therapy for a wounded spirit. I sometimes feel like saying, “Move over, Dr. Phil,” because students will come with tears, we put on the music, and they dance away their cares. I myself derive as much therapy from the lessons as my students. I’m in the role of caregiver to my mom who is in hospice. On some days, I leave Mom, rush to the studio, and sit in my car for a moment while drying my tears. Then I walk into the studio, the music starts, and I’m suddenly dancing my way into a place where life is beautiful and everything is okay.
MY DANCE STORY
My introduction to hula began when I was five years old. Our neighbors, the Brands, who were Hawaiian, became our family’s best friends. They introduced us to the Island culture. In particular, they introduced us to a hula dance instructor that everyone called Auntie Sybil. My mom, two older sisters, and I began to take weekly dance lessons at Auntie Sybil’s Hercules studio. She was big on giving back, so before long we were performing in dance recitals for various community functions and retirement centers. I continued dancing until high school, when I quit in order to spend more time with friends.
In 1995 I married Raul Castaneda, we moved to Antioch, and had two daughters. When our youngest daughter Kiana was five, I learned that one of her kindergarten playmates was taking hula lessons from an instructor named Michelle Jaramillo who was teaching out of her home. I enrolled Kiana in hula lessons at the same age that I had started and, just like me, Kiana immediately fell in love with the music and the movement.
I started hanging around the studio during Kiana’s dance lessons, and Michelle and I became good friends. My experience of reconnecting with hula seemed like coming home or meeting a dear friend following a long absence. Michelle was going through some life changes, and asked if I would fill in for her dance lessons. I covered her classes for a while, but Michelle never came back. However, my reconnection with hula had become a fact. When some of my daughter’s soccer moms asked if I would teach their daughters hula, I cleared out space in our garage for a dance floor and gave an introductory lesson to eight little girls. That was 12 years ago, and I’ve been giving lessons ever since.
We were just doing this for fun, but the garage-based hula dance studio seemed to develop a life of its own. Even though I never advertised, classes increased in size. People would drive by and stop to ask what we were doing. In some cases they would be back the next week taking lessons themselves. I wanted to go beyond mere entertainment, so we began to schedule dance recitals at which we would charge an entrance fee of canned goods that we would deliver to members of the homeless community.
There was no profit motive to my hula. It never occurred to me to make money through dance until one day I was working out at In-Shape Sports Club with my girlfriend, who was one of my dance students. Our instructor, Randi Moser, played a hula song, which caused me to break out into dance. Randi thought hula classes would be a nice addition to the In-Shape list of activities, so for the next five years I taught Cardio Hula classes as well as the weekly lessons in my garage.
Hula began to play an increasingly important role in my life — a resource that I could use in order to make a difference in the world. People became involved in our service to the homeless. When we learned that one of our neighbor’s children had cancer but no insurance, we put on a big hula show and raised $3,000. Things were good; I had danced my way into a satisfying life.
We were outgrowing the garage. One day Beed Harris, who owned a massage therapy business, offered me an unused classroom in his building, so I moved into my first actual studio space. I never imagined that I could actually make money from hula until I met Larry Alfonso. He had tried to find a place for his daughter to learn hula and had been dissatisfied with the classes he had visited until he found mine. His daughter liked me from the beginning and took lessons from me while Larry sat quietly in the back observing.
Finally, after a year had gone by, Larry asked me, “What are your plans?” I told him I had no plans.
“Have you thought of opening your own business?” Larry asked. I told him I hadn’t thought of it even for a minute.
Larry continued approaching me with the question, and I kept refusing to discuss it with him until one day he asked, “Can I come to your house some night and talk to you and your husband?” He showed up with a finished business plan complete with charts and graphs.
I had no ambition to grow beyond the family-size operation I had been running, but Larry said that we needed to expand. He would take care of the business end, and I would do the teaching. It was scary at the beginning because Raul and I put up the money for the project, and I wondered who would pay enough for hula lessons to make this profitable. However, I came to feel that God was pushing me out of a comfortable little bubble. We found our current studio space, and on August 9, 2013 had an open house, demonstrations, catered food, dance instructions, and a formal ribbon cutting. It was more fabulous than I had imagined!
Contrary to my fears, the business did fine. We’ve tripled the number of members, and the people who come dance with us are the kind of people I want to hang out with. We named the business Mau Loa Ohana, which means Forever Family — a perfect name for the atmosphere we’ve created. We began an
annual “Hula Away Cancer” fundraising project to raise money for the American Cancer Society. We became especially serious about this when my mom developed terminal cancer.
I grew up in Richmond and attended Catholic schools, eventually graduating from the all-girls’ Presentation High School in Berkeley. I sometimes wished I was attending public school, especially seeing the neighbor kids going off to class with their friends.
When I was old enough to begin thinking for myself, it seemed that the nuns were unable to provide satisfactory answers to questions that I had begun asking, so I gave up on religion. However, I never imagined that the inability of those nuns to answer my questions didn’t mean that the questions didn’t have answers. I remained a woman of faith and eventually discovered a community of believers at Antioch’s Golden Hills Church. They didn’t have all the answers either, but were glad to join me in asking questions and searching for answers. My life journey led through some difficult crossings, but those people kept hold of my hand as I went through deep waters that otherwise might have carried me away. Their support and my faith saved my life on more than one occasion.
Following high school, I studied Medical Office Management at San Francisco’s National Education Center. However, trying to get work in the field was frustrating. I grew weary of cold-faced hiring managers continu- ally turning me down because I didn’t have any experience. A job interview suddenly opened up with Wells Fargo Auto Leasing. They didn’t care about experience, so I worked there for the next 15 years.
My fellow workers were a friendly group and we enjoyed hanging out together. One of them, Raul Castaneda, who worked in Customer Service, asked me on a date. I accepted, even though I thought it was weird going on a date with him because he wasn’t my type. However, at the end of the date, when he kissed me goodnight, sparks flashed. After that I looked at Raul from a completely different perspective. Life with Raul and hula has been wonderful.
Auntie Sybil returned to Hawaii seven years ago, and I’m going back this month along with some of my friends and students. She’s planning to give us a lesson on the beach at sunny Waikiki. It’s going to be a blast! If things work out, following the lesson, Auntie Sybil and the others will watch me get baptized in the Pacific Ocean. That’s been a dream for quite a while.
Larry is still handling the business, which is good because I will never have an entrepre- neurial mindset. I’m happily dancing through one day at a time. It will be great if Mau Loa Ohana is going strong five years from now, but I’m not depending upon it.
I’ll keep dancing whether in a business or not.