Lynnwood native Krista Espiritu was only 3 years old when she fell in love with hula dancing.
“My best friend’s mom danced hula, and instead of going to play upstairs in her room with dinosaurs or whatever she wanted to play with, I would want to sit there and just watch her mom practice hula,” she said. “Now it’s my whole existence. It’s my business, it’s my life. It’s everything, all wrapped into one.”
Espiritu started her own hālau, or hula school, in April 2007, teaching nine students out of her garage in Edmonds. Now, she teaches more than 100 dancers of all ages, skill levels and ethnicities at her hālau, named Hula O Lehualani, in Firdale Village. On July 10, those students will perform in her hālau’s ninth annual Hōʻike performance at the Edmonds Center for the Arts.
The Hōʻike will include two and a half hours of live music, chanting and both hula and Tahitian dancing. Each of Espiritu’s classes will perform more than one routine, for a total of 36 songs in the recital.
“I’m very proud of the dancers. They work really hard,” Espiritu said. “I’m strict with them so that they’re all dancing in the same style which I was taught.”
That style centers around a traditional technique of hula dancing, which she learned from multiple Kumu, or teachers, throughout her life. Before opening Hula O Lehualani, she trained with Auntie Marge Lehualani Hunt, who she refers to as the “Grandmother of hula in Seattle.” Hunt, who is now 94 years old, studied under Emma “Mama” Kahelelani Bishop and Mary Kawena Puku’i on O’ahu in the 1950s. Espiritu said Hunt is the reason she opened her own hālau in the first place.
“She said, ‘You’re going to start your own hālau,’” Espiritu said. “‘All my stuff is going to die with me. I need to give it to you. You’re the one that’s going to carry on this legacy.’”
But Espiritu makes sure her students walk away from class with more than just the traditional technique she learned. Three years ago, she began taking Hawaiian language classes to better understand how to teach her students about the stories they are telling in their performances.
“If they don’t know what they’re dancing about, it just becomes a routine without meaning,” she said. “And hula is so rich. You need to understand what you’re dancing about.”
Espiritu’s authentic style of hula dancing is what impressed Kermet Apio, a Hawaii native who was looking for a hālau for his 5-year-old daughter before Espiritu opened Hula O Lehualani.
“As someone who grew up in Hawaii, it was very important for me to find a place where my daughter could learn correctly, because there’s a correct way to learn the dance and the storytelling of hula,” he said. “I know my kids are being raised in Seattle, but I want them to be aware of that culture and hopefully close to that culture, because it’s a lot of who I am.”
Apio, who is a full-time comedian living in Mountlake Terrace, decided to start his daughter with a beginning hula class at the Frances Anderson Center while he and his wife continued to search for hālaus. Espiritu happened to be her teacher.
“We were genuinely surprised, because we thought, ‘It’s the Edmonds community center, how authentic can it be?’” Apio said.
When Espiritu announced that she would be opening her own hālau, Apio and his daughter followed. Now 14 years old, his daughter is enrolled in Espiritu’s “Papa Melia” class for teenagers.
“We were just really happy with how things were being taught,” Apio said. “Krista is committed to detail and yet also wants them to enjoy themselves. She can be very strict in class and very stern, but she’s all about doing it right and having fun and enjoying it.”
Apio is now one of three musicians who accompany the hālau’s performances in the non-ancient style. The trio, called Kupono, consists of Apio on the guitar, Elias Ka’uhane on the ukulele and Peter Tabali on the bass. Though Apio is the only member whose family was originally involved in Hula O Lehualani, both Ka’uhane and Tabali now have family members dancing in Espiritu’s hālau.
“To watch the hālau grow as much as it has in such a short time is very impressive,” Apio said.
Tonya Drake, who serves as the vice president for college relations and advancement at Edmonds Community College, was just as surprised to discover Edmonds had a hālau. She has been dancing at Hula O Lehualani since she tried a class four years ago.
“I fell in love with the storytelling aspect, the culture, the aloha spirit and the sisterhood it has created. And I love that one of Krista’s passions is sharing that aloha spirit with the community,” Drake said. “I feel like our hālau puts on this amazing show. I mean, a first-class show – more than you can get if you traveled to the islands, and it’s here in our community.”
But when the Edmonds Center for the Arts opened 10 years ago, such a performance was only a dream for Espiritu.
“I remember sitting in an Edmonds Center for the Arts seat watching a show, and I said to my husband, ‘Oh, someday I want to have my students up on this big, beautiful stage – and I’m pretty sure it’ll never happen, because I only have a couple people and this is so big and beautiful and it’s probably not even a reality, but someday, maybe…’” she said. “And here we are, nine years later, and we’re at the place where I dreamed of my students being able to do what they do in a beautiful, large venue.”
Espiritu looks at the upcoming performance as a way to expand the community already fostered in Hula O Lehualani.
“It’s my hope that this kind of might become an Edmonds thing,” she said. “I’m so proud of my students and I have so much love for them. I want them to share all that they have.”
Hula O Lehualani’s Ninth Annual Hōʻike and Fundraiser will be held at the Edmonds Center for the Arts on July 10 at 4 p.m. Tickets can be purchased now through the Edmonds Center for the Arts, online for $15 or at the ticket office for $14.
— By Caitlin Plummer