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Kekela “Aunty Kela” Miller recalls hula journey from performing at PCC to opening hālau

Aunty Kela smiles as she's performing the hula in a white shirt with leis and black background.

Known around Laie as “Aunty Kela,” Kekela Miller said she has been dancing hula since she could walk. She looked back on her time performing in the first cast at the Polynesian Cultural Center, as well as her years competing in hula competitions and starting her own hula hālau.

Members of the Laie community say, “If you play the music, Aunty Kela will come.” Miller admitted she is usually one of the first ones at the front dancing hula at community events. She described how at a young age her mother told her, “When you hear good Hawaiian music, don’t waste it.”  Miller shared, “The music is so sweet and so beautiful that you have to go and portray that. Go up and share your aloha.”

When you hear good Hawaiian music, don’t waste it. Go up and share your aloha.
Aunty Kela

Miller shared how, “Growing up in Laie allowed us many wonderful opportunities to dance.” Her earliest memories of performing were in 1940 when the chapel of the local congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints burned in a tragic fire. 

She explained, “Because of the chapel burning down, they created what was called the Hukilau, and it was to raise enough money to build another chapel.” At age 4, Miller performed at the historic Hukilau, which became a recurring luau feast where the people of Laie shared food, music and dance in hopes of raising funds to rebuild the chapel.

Miller said, “Hula is a big part of Laie.” She remembered growing up and learning to dance from influential leaders and kupuna in the community. Her great grandmother, Tutu Luika Pele Kaio, was also an influential figure within the rich history of hula in Laie. Miller shared, “My great grandmother was one of the first to ever receive compensation for teaching hula. People would bring her fish in exchange for her hula lessons.” 

As a young girl, Miller trained in her family’s hula hālau, learning from her mother. She said, “In my early years, I learned to listen. We weren’t allowed to ask questions. But I learned a lot from sitting and watching. I learned to be respectful. I learned to respect their knowledge, respect them when they spoke, respect their love for the Church and respect their love for their culture.”  She said learning from her mother “made me realize that I was born to learn the hula. At the time, I never realized what was to be done in my future. That I would someday become a ‘kumu hula,’ a teacher.”

When Miller was 19 years old, she became a dancer in the first cast at the PCC. She shared, “I remember dancing on the highway when the center first opened. We would go out there and dance hoping that the buses would stop and go in. It was fun. We had no idea we were getting paid.”  

Working at the PCC grounded her as a dancer. “We learned to be more refined in our movements and to be more culturally correct.” Not only did she continue learning hula, but she also learned other Polynesian cultural dances, such as Maori, Tahitian, Samoan and Fijian. 
She explained, “All of the instructors we had were wonderful and real, and they knew their stuff.  We were fortunate to learn from such great leaders who taught us so well that we are now able to teach. Because of them, we know how the Maori hands are supposed to look. We know how to ‘pukana.’ We know the difference between Tahitian and Cook Islands drumming.”

Aunty Kela smiles as she's dancing in a pink dress, lei and haku, with other dancers in background.

Miller said when the idea for the PCC was born, those in the tourism industry laughed. She said, “Everybody said, ‘Who is going to come all the way out here to see people dance?’ But they did come.”  Miller expressed gratitude to those who had insight to know the PCC was necessary and would have a tremendous impact on the community.  

“They knew they needed something for the people that were to go to the Church College.  They needed to help find the students a place to work. And I tell you, what a blessing it is today.”  

The PCC had a lasting impact on Miller. She asserted, “I will always be there for the PCC. I will always be there to help because they have given me a lot.” Miller said she was fortunate to live among the kupuna who made a difference in the community of Laie. Inspired by their example, Miller started her own hula halau.

At the age of 22, Miller began teaching. “I began teaching the May Day queens from Kahuku High School who didn’t know how to dance.” Miller wondered why these young girls were not learning hula and realized there was not a place where people could learn hula without having to pay.  

She said, “Ever since then, I opened up my halau to everyone.  People need a place to come and learn, and so I don’t charge.”

Miller’s hālau, Hālau Hula ‘O Kekela, was given its name by Cy Bridges, her former kumu hula known internationally as a Hawaiian cultural expert. Her halau has consisted of dancers ranging from age 5 to 90.  

Her class practices hula at the local Courtyard Marriott every week. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, she planned to still teach through weekly Facebook meetings.  She said, “I’m going to start teaching hula on Facebook weekly from 9-10 until this is all over so not only my hālau can learn, but also people from all over the world can learn too.”

Miller said over the years her halau has become a group providing service to the communities of Koolauloa. From the beginning she said, “We are going to participate and go into the community. We’re going to go to funerals. We’re going to give our time to the Church, and when people need us to come and serve, we are there.”

Throughout the years, Miller’s halau has traveled the world for performances and competitions. For the last six years they have been invited to Tahiti, New Zealand and Rapanui to participate in the Taputapuatea Festival. In 2015 they began traveling to Las Vegas, Nevada to participate in the Kumukahi Ukulele and Hula festival where they placed first in the kupuna division in 2015 and first in the kupuna soloist division in 2019.

With all of her success and achievements, she says her love for the Hawaiian culture is what drives her. She said, “The reason we go is not to compete but to share. I teach what I know, and I teach from the heart. I tell my haumana (students) to dance from the heart, and that’s all I can expect of them.”

Miller’s granddaughter, Manaia Afalava, said most of her memories with her grandma involve hula. She acknowledged how fortunate she was to have Miller as her grandmother. Afalava said, “Not many grandkids have their grandmother as their kumu hula.”

Looking back at all she’s learned from her grandma, Afalava said, “She taught me to always love people no matter what. She always said to love others like you love yourself. That has stuck with me for a long time.”

She always said to love others like you love yourself.
Manaia Afalava

Amelia Faleta, a Laie local said, “My memories of Aunty Kela are always seeing her serving our community and performing with her halau. I always see her dancing and singing everywhere.” She said her favorite memories of Miller are watching her perform at local events.