Rebecca Kahikilani Akana’s mother always says that Akana started dancing hula before she knew how to walk.
The 52-year-old kumu hula, who now teaches students in Las Vegas, Nev., started her lifelong love affair with hula as a keiki.
Raised in the old fishing village of Keʻei near Hōnaunau-Nāpōʻopoʻo on the island of Hawaiʻi, Akana grew up in what she describes as a “very traditional home.” She spent her childhood playing in the ocean, helping with household tasks like making poi and absorbing ʻike Hawaiʻi learned from her tūtū.
“I find it fortunate that I was raised in that kind of environment,” she said. “Nothing can ever replace the memories or the teachings and the upbringing that we come from.”
At the age of 6, Akana’s mother enrolled her into Polynesian dance. She learned traditional hula from her Uncle Jay Deramos, who taught her privately for several years. Then she started dancing under Kumu Hula Nani Lim Yap – performing professionally at the resorts on the island’s northern coast. Akana studied under Yap for three decades, from the age of 14 until she moved to the continent.
After relocating to the continent, Yap allowed her to teach hula as an alakaʻi hula (hula leader) beginning in 2008 until Akana graduated from her hālau, Nā Lei O Kaholokū, in 2012. Shortly after her ʻūniki ceremony, Akana opened her own hālau in Las Vegas, with her kumu blessing it with its name: Hālau Nā Lei O Kahikilani.
“I knew the kids being raised here would not have the experience of growing up in the islands,” Akana said. “As kumu hula, we have to build that environment here, and try to keep them connected as much as possible to Hawaiʻi.”
Today, she has 28 haumāna, from keiki to kūpuna. Although she balances teaching with a full-time job at a credit union, Akana is called to feed her passion for hula. She channels her seven years of experience as a docent at Hulihe‘e Palace in Kailua-Kona to teach her students Hawaiian history and culture, and even takes them into the mountains surrounding Las Vegas to oli (chant) for the sun.
Akana never thought that she’d leave Hawaiʻi. But then she met her husband, Nick Keoni Akana, through a mutual friend in 2001 and the couple married the following year.
Although he is also Hawaiian, her husband spent his childhood in the farmlands of central California. After several years of marriage, he yearned to reside closer to his father, and Akana agreed to support him.
When the pair decided to move to the continent, they dreamed of living among the bright lights of Las Vegas. “I said to myself, ‘How neat to connect with Hawaiians in the diaspora,’” Akana recalled.
Her choice to leave the islands was still a difficult one. She agonized over leaving her mother – although her mother encouraged her daughter to explore the world. Akana also worried about uprooting her own daughter, Kamana, then 5-years-old, who was attending a Hawaiian immersion school.
Nevertheless, Akana considers herself to be pōmaikaʻi (blessed). Unlike many Hawaiians who are forced out of the islands by the skyrocketing cost of living, she and her siblings own land in Keʻei passed down by their kūpuna: three ma kai properties and two ma uka properties.
And Akana knew she’d retain her culture, no matter where she lived. “I’m so Hawaiian that there isn’t a place that could ever change that,” she said.
That resolve was tested once she moved to the continent – initially to California, then later to Nevada. In Las Vegas, she encountered different ways of thinking that “taught me to really practice my aloha even harder,” Akana reflected.
And she watched Kamana adjust to American living. By the time she reached her junior year of high school, Akana sent her daughter back to the islands “to get her feet re-rooted” in nā mea Hawaiʻi.
Now, at the age of 27, Kamana has chosen to remain in Hawaiʻi, and “tells Mom and Dad to come home already,” Akana laughs.
And Akana does plan to return home eventually, but, for now, her kuleana is in Nevada.
“I appreciate Las Vegas and what it has offered,” Akana said. “But it will never be Hawaiʻi. I could never compare the two.”