Tom Durkin
Special to The Union

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January 29, 2010
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'Hawaiian at heart'


To outsiders, the Ka Hale Hula O Pilialohaokalani O Hi'lo is a "hula halau," the formal Hawaiian name for the Grass Valley hula school.

But to the members of the dance troupe, it's an "ohana," a family, explains Pilialohaokalani "Pili" Christiansen, the "kumu hula" (teacher) of the Grass Valley Hula Halau.

"It's more than a dance, says the native Hawaiian. "It's a lifestyle."

"Hula builds up your character and gives you so much to look forward to in life," she adds solemnly.

The students learn the language, the chants, the songs, the history, the traditions, the crafts, the costumes and the protocols of a halau, adds Dale Kuumonialoha Deacon of Lake of the Pines.

This includes learning to weave flower leis, sew their own costumes (no, not grass skirts) and to make a gourd drum called an ipu heke.

Deacon is Christiansen's "kumu alaka'i," chief assistant; and she is critical to the success of the halau, because Christiansen only comes to town once a month. It's Deacon's job to supervise thrice-weekly rehearsals at the Sierra Dance Institute in the Center for the Arts building in downtown Grass Valley.

Each month, Christiansen travels from Port Hueneme in Southern California, where she runs a full-time halau, to teach a rigorous eight hours on Saturday and another four and a half hours on Sunday.

"It's such a joy to come to Grass Valley each month," Christiansen says.

The diminutive, 62-year-old Christiansen is definitely the matriarch and benevolent taskmaster of this hula ohana. The 30-some members are clearly devoted to her, and they work hard to dance to her exacting standards.

"It's not a hobby," Christiansen stresses.

"It's a lifetime of sharing and giving to others what was taught to me the right way," asserts Christiansen. Starting at age 3, she learned from her grandmother and mother, as well as master kumus in Hawaii, before she moved to the mainland in 1987.

The Grass Valley halau was established in 2003 after Christiansen held a highly successful hula workshop when she brought her Southern California troupe to Grass Valley for a concert performance.

The halau is currently comprised of about 30 women and two men, but only two of the original members remain - Michael Ikaikoloa Keene of Nevada City and Annette Momimakamae Faulkner of Penn Valley.

Sunday morning listeners of community radio station KVMR are familiar with Keene, who hosts the Kani Ka Pila show from 10 a.m. to noon featuring Hawaiian music and interviews with musicians.

Keene says he loves the hula because, "There's a story to everything."

The Grass Valley Hula Halau regularly performs for schools, senior citizen homes and various nonprofits. They also participated in Indigenous Peoples' Day last October - although only Christiansen and Deacon can claim indigenous heritage.

Nevertheless, the dancers were good enough to win second place at the King Kamehameha hula competition in Honolulu in 2005. Additionally, the group has performed at festivals in Hilo and on Maui.

"I'm Hawaiian at heart," says Cindy Waipuna Kelley of Grass Valley, who is an assistant alaka'i. This sentiment is echoed by many members of the halau.

"I felt like I was home in Hawaii," agrees Anita Tiare Coley of Nevada City. "To feel the same spirit in my home has changed my life, opened my heart, enlivened my mind."

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer based in Nevada City. For comments on this article, e-mail kmidboe@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4251.


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The Union Updated Jan 29, 2010 09:36PM Published Jan 29, 2010 09:27PM Copyright 2010 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.