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CULTURE PEARLS : Paradise Prolonged : 3 Generations Carry On Island Dance Traditions at Polynesian Studio

July 01, 1993|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who frequently contributes to The Times Orange County Edition. This column is one in an occasional series of looks at ethnic arts and culture in and around Orange County.

Musical ability often runs in families. In the case of Riki Liufau, choreographer at the Nonosina Polynesian Dance Studio in Anaheim, it runs heavily on both sides.

On any given evening, three generations of dancers and musicians are represented at the studio, started almost a quarter of a century ago by Liufau's mother, Estelle Reid; seven of Reid's eight grandchildren attend the school.

But the dynasty extends to a fourth generation, back beyond the island movies of Dorothy Lamour, to Liufau's grandfather and grandmother on her father's side. Samoan and Hawaiian, respectively, they came to the United States in the 1920s, and her grandmother, Leina Ala, still lives in Anaheim.

Liufau recently shared a story that bridged the family line's past and future.

"When my grandparents arrived in the 1920s, there weren't many Polynesian people living here," Liufau said. "But the ones who were here were used as extras at the Hollywood studios, even for Tarzan movies. My grandmother choreographed some of the old island pictures.

"A television show was recently made about the Julie Andrews-Ben Kingsley remake of 'The King and I,' and my son is one of the principal actors. While we were waiting for it to come on, there was an old 'Superman' show on with George Reeves and all these natives on an island. Who was one of the cannibals? My grandfather!"

The school highlights the dance styles of four island peoples, and each tells a story in its own way. Hawaii, with its graceful hula, is perhaps most familiar; the Maori dances tell stories using poi balls, and accompanying drums can help carry the message of Samoan and Tahitian dances. Students don appropriate dress for each style.

Liufau's husband, Melvin, teaches the Samoan fire knife dance. Tuko Tekurio, who's married to Riki's cousin--Estelle's niece--teaches the Tahitian drum classes. Riki's daughter, Tiana, 11, serves as lead drummer for the children's drum classes and calls the chants, and hopes someday to teach the classes; she's been dancing since she was 1.

Other musical dynasties may also be in the making at the school. Nine-year-old Elise Ganaden of Seal Beach, who spontaneously got up to dance with wildly gyrating hips during the drum class, has won two dance competitions. Her father and brother are both Tahitian drum students.

"Elise started dancing when she was 5, and she really took off with it," said her father, Ernie Ganaden. "Her mother was a professional dancer. My son also dances. It's all become a family affair."

Trophies line the studio's shelves. Dina Geisen of Orange was overall winner at last year's Kiki Raina Tahitian Fete, a dance competition in Turlock that drew 160 contestants. Her daughter, Wailana, won the 4-year-old category.

Nonosina students appear regularly at the Disneyland Tahitian Terrace and in the Rose Parade and have been featured on a segment of the TV soap opera "The Young and the Restless."

The school boasts an enrollment of 80 students, among them JoAnne Holman of Laguna Niguel, who has attended classes for 24 years. Those classes have paid off: She has a reputation as the school's fastest Tahitian dancer.

Holman, who is of Japanese and Hawaiian descent, sees herself as an ambassador for the South Seas.

"I think a lot of people have a misconception about Polynesian dancing," Holman said. "Because we show our midriff, people think it's like belly-dancing, which is stereotypically sexy and more what I'd call exotic dancing.

"Polynesian dancing is completely cultural. All of us here do it to perpetuate the island culture here in California . . . to bring island music and dance to the mainland."

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