Tropical Productions celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage month at CelebrASIA festival with hula dancing

Olivia Lewman

For Tropical Productions founder Keito St. James, hula dancing isn’t just about grass skirts and coconut bras.  

St. James founded Tropical Productions, a national touring Polynesian dance and music company, when he moved to Austin. Tropical Productionswill perform May 2 for the CelebrASIA festival, which honors Asian Pacific American Heritage month, at the Asian American Resource Center.

St. James, a Hawaiian native, said he noticed a void of understanding about Hawaiian cultural and wanted to be an ambassador for his homeland. He said many people see hula as exotic and often forget it is part of American culture. 

“It is a true indigenous culture, and we want people to see it that way,” St. James said.  “Some see it as hokey, and we want them to see our traditions and also to remember it’s American.”

Some of the first members of St. James’s hula troupe were UT students. The company started in the early 1990s, holding rehearsals in the Texas Union and performing events on campus. Now, Tropical Productions performs in places such as Las Vegas, but but it holds onto its campus connections through student dancers.   

Rochelle Olivares, public affairs and social work graduate student, learned to dance hula in Guam, where she grew up. She joined Tropical Production five years ago after moving to Austin and said she feels at home with her troupe because it reminds her of the island life. For her, hula is a spiritual experience that embodies Hawaiian culture and lifestyle.

“It’s a very beautiful dance in the fact that every single movement means something,” Olivares said. “There is a spiritual aspect, and it is very grounding to be able to use your body to tell a story.”

Olivares said she doesn’t introduce herself as a hula dancer right away because most people ask her to dance for them, but hula isn’t something she can easily jump into. She said it’s also against hula tradition to dance for profit or for self-promotion.

Kealoha, which means friendship and love, is Oliveras’ Hawaiian which was given to her by St. James’ mother and business partner Kanani. She said she becomes Kealoha when she dances. It’s typical that the kumu hula, or dance teacher, gives dancers names that embodies their life forces, Olivares said.  

“Most of the people I dance with, take on a different personality when they dance; they take on their Hawaiian spirit, or their mana,” Olivares said.

St. James said hula has taken many forms throughout its history. When European missionaries came to Hawaii in the late 1800s, hula was forced underground for over 75 years because it didn’t represent Christian ideals and was seen as evil.

“Traditionally, hula was used symbolically and religiously,” St. James said. “It’s believed if you danced a prayer, it was worth a thousand prayers.”

When it reemerged, St. James said it became a commercialized dance.

“Hula became that cruise ship type hula,” St. James said. “You know, sexy girls dancing on the side of the cruise ship, singing in English? We call this hapa haole hula.“

The Hawaiian Renaissance, a time of revival for traditional hula dance, came in the 1970s. St. James said he had the privilege of growing up around people who celebrated the true roots of hula.

“Sometimes, people think Hawaiian dance is a lewd thing, like, ‘Oh you have to wear coconuts,’ but, really, it’s a family thing,” St. James said. “The way I grew up in Hawaii everyone from our babies to our grandmothers are involved.”


  • What: CelebrASIA Austin: Asian Pacific American Food & Heritage Festival
  • Where: Asian American Resource Center -8401 Cameron Rd, Austin, Texas 78754
  • When: 11 a.m. 3 p.m.
  • Admission: free