I quit an accounting job to be a hula dancer—here’s what I learned

When I tell people I used to be a dancer the first type of dance that enters their mind is ballet. Then modern. Then jazz. Then tap. Never hula.

When I say I’ve been a hula dancer for most of my life, a lot of people ask, “Hula hooping?”

“No,” I say. “Think grass skirts and coconut bras.”


Being a professional hula dancer is an uncommon craft. I think it’s because hula isn’t traditionally a performance art. Dancers go to halaus (traditional Hawaiian hula schools) to honor a calling. While I may not be of Hawaiian blood, I honor and respect the beautiful culture this dance came from and the heritage in which it has thrived.

And that’s why I performed. I wanted to somehow share these indescribable emotions, these profound feelings, with others, especially those outside Hawaiian culture and small world that is hula dancing. So after years of training in a halau and dancing with various Polynesian dance groups (which typically include Hawaiian hula, Tahitian ori, and other Polynesian styles of dance), I assembled my own performance troupe with the help of my husband.

Together, we created our very own luau show. I choreographed both Hawaiian and Tahitian dances, auditioned and trained all our dancers, and my husband made all the costumes (by hand!). He also ran our production and sound and served as our resident fire breather.

We spent two years traveling all over California, from San Diego to Santa Rosa, performing at festivals, fairs, schools, businesses, weddings, movie openings, birthday parties, and so, so much more. Here’s what I learned from those wacky, crazy days as a full-time hula dancer.

Do what you love (no matter how you look doing it)

Before starting our dance troupe I was a little apprehensive about telling my friends and colleagues. I was stepping away from an accounting career that I’d begun when I was just seventeen. I’d developed that career in San Jose, California, aka Silicon Valley, the technology capital of the world…and I wanted to go off and be a dancer for a little while. What would people think? Would it make me look flaky and irresponsible? Probably.

I did it anyway, and one of the most frequent compliments we received after a performance was “It’s clear you guys love what you do!” How was that not enough to make my day? I made a living playing dress up, listening to awesome music, and sharing something deeply meaningful to me with other people. I was even privileged enough to employ other women, other dancers, who loved it as much as I did! Who cared if I was in Silicon Valley making a living wearing fruit and foliage? I loved every minute of it, and it was absolutely worth the risk!

Sometimes, smiling more actually makes you feel better

Like cheerleaders, we hula dancers have a much-practiced perma-grin, that smile that never fades and never wavers during a performance no matter what. No. Matter. What. Not even when a cute little doggie comes nipping at your heels during a performance. Not even when the concrete you’re dancing on is so hot you end up with blisters by the end of the show. Not even when it’s 50 degrees outside and windy and you’re dancing on a ledge next to a swimming pool praying you don’t fall in…oh, and it’s raining.

When I took this lesson back to the super-focused, often cranky, high-stress corporate world I found it invaluable. Sitting all day again was a shock to my system after two years of dancing full-time. Not seeing sunlight for hours at a time was also a hard reality to accept. I tried to keep smiling even when I didn’t have to perform. And you know what? Sometimes it really worked.

Everyone needs a little more aloha in their lives

The meaning of aloha is a bit elusive. At its most basic, it’s a word used to greet someone (Hello!) or to wish someone well when parting (Goodbye!). But, as I learned, it’s also a way of expressing love and affection toward another person. The deeper meaning is alluded to in the common phrases such as “the aloha spirit” and “the aloha way.” These simple phrases point to something much more profound. They speak to a way of living, a way of being in the world while acknowledging your connection to everyone and everything in it.

This sense of connection permeated every one of our performances. Every time I danced I felt like I was inviting the audience to share in a unique and special part of my life. Every time a show ended, I was approached by audience members eager to share their own personal stories of having been to Hawaii, or their desire to go, or  their memories of a family member who loved Hawaii and would’ve truly enjoyed our performance.

These moments of connection surprised me, and the eagerness with which others longed to connect often caught me off guard…until I remembered we are social creatures always looking for connections whether we realize it or not.

I carry these experiences with me every day, and I’m so thankful I took the risk I did. The lessons I learned and moments I shared with people I may never see again still inform every day of my life.

Reese Leyva is a number cruncher by day and wordsmith by night who dreams of owning chickens and building her own natural swimming pool. She blogs about gentle parenting at www.raisingdahlia.com and posts her poetry at www.reeseleyva.com. When she’s not working or writing she’s partying with her super cool infant daughter and nifty homemaker husband. And by partying, she means napping.

[Image via iStock]