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Hula Mai returns to Sonoma Plaza on June 17

‘Hula in the Plaza’ begins at 5 p.m. in Grinstead Amphiheater on Saturday, June 17.


In a pink cellophane skirt with silver ruffles, 89-year-old Liz Quinn will dance front and center to Elvis Presley’s 1961 hit “Rock-a-Hula Baby” at the annual Hula in the Plaza. Two 12-year-olds, the youngest members of Hula Mai, the performance art group that hosts the show, will dance by her side.

“It’s our gift of ‘Aloha’ to the community,” said Betty Ann Bruno, founder of Hula Mai. This is the eighth year of Hula in the Plaza, and the dancers will perform entirely new material for the free, hour-and fifteen-minute show. The performance begins at 5 p.m. in Grinstead Amphiheatre on Saturday, June 17.

Also called “Ho’ike,” which means “final test or exhibition,” the event is the culmination of a yearlong effort. “Every year we get a little more elaborate than the year before,” said Bruno. This year, they will be performing everything from hula to chanting to modern music, including the difficult Papa Hehi.

In Papa Hehi, dancers keep one set of rhythm going with one foot on a treadle, and tap another rhythm out with two sticks. Meanwhile they chant in the Ni’ihau dialect, and dance on and off the treadle. “It’s mesmerizing, beautiful and inspiring,” said Bruno.

The group will be accompanied by live music. The lead singer of the band “Kaluhea,” Kumu Liko Puha, is a teacher of Hawaiian culture and chanting. “We’re all in love with his voice,” said Bruno.

The group’s bass player is flying in from Las Vegas for the event, having already flown in for two of their rehearsals. The last member of the band is a professional guitarist from Santa Rosa.

Hula in the Plaza may be the group’s largest event, but it is hardly their first of the year. They’ve been performing twice a week for the past five weeks, providing entertainment around the Valley, at birthday parties, wine tastings and other private parties.

The group is a sisterhood in many ways — the women who dance the hula have become bonded through the teamwork of preparing for the yearly show.

“There’s just something about hula,” said Bruno. “It’s all about being connected. About nature and love. It’s very beautiful.”

What started as a retirement hobby for Bruno after a long and successful career in journalism, now keep keeps her busy with three classes a week.

“It started as a workshop to meet other people who did the hula,” she said. “After that workshop, nobody wanted to stop.”

Now, Bruno has around 45 regular students, with 30 performing in the show. “People say it’s a nice change in today’s world,” Bruno said.

Quinn is one of her early students, who began dancing six months after Bruno’s first workshop.

“My husband and I went to island for so many years,” explained Quinn. “I went there for my honeymoon in 1953, and I found my love for Hawaii then.”

Bruno also has a special affinity towards hula. Her mother was Hawaiian-Chinese, and her father was Dutch-Irish.

“I grew up in a time when it wasn’t cool to be ethnic,” said Bruno. “As a young adult, I started to hula to find out who I was.”

Thirty years later, in her retirement, Bruno picked the art up again.

‘Hula in the Plaza’ begins at 5 p.m. in Grinstead Amphiheater on Saturday, June 17.

“One of my friends encouraged me to teach,” she said. “She told me I should do something more with hula than dance in my living room.”

Adds Bruno: “Our motto is hula makes you happy.”

More information about “Hula Mai” and this Saturday’s “Hula in the Plaza” can be found at hulamai.org/hoike.html.