- Associated Press - Sunday, June 28, 2015

WAILUKU, Hawaii (AP) - In a single-car garage on Vineyard Street in Wailuku, a young Iola Caldito learned the hula. Taught by the late Elizabeth Lum Ho, the 6-year-old found a passion and never let go.

“I loved hula from the very start,” said Iola Caldito Balubar, now 68, a kumu hula and professional Polynesian dancer. It became her life and her career, reported the Maui News (http://bit.ly/1LsmrHi ).

This year marks the 40-year anniversary of Balubar’s halau, which got its start in May 1975. Initially called Iola Balubar Polynesian Dance Studio, the group was renamed Halau Hula O Keola Ali’i O Ke Kai, which means “the lively king of the sea,” in 1982. The name was inspired by her sons’ names, Keolaokekai and Kealii, and by the family of her husband, Richard Balubar, divers and fishermen who love the ocean.

From that Vineyard Street garage, Balubar followed her passion and learned more hula and Polynesian dance, including Tahitian, Maori and Samoan styles. She performed professionally at Maui venues familiar to old-timers, such as the Intercontinental Hotel in Wailea (now the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa) and the old Maui Lu Resort in Kihei (which currently is being turned into a 388-unit time-share project).

Balubar has taken hula and Polynesian dance to the Mainland, Japan, the Philippines and Canada. She even performed at Disneyland’s Tahitian Terrace Restaurant, with five half-hour shows daily.

“I would look forward for Tinker Bell flying on an overhead wire across Disney’s park,” she recalled.

In addition to performing, teaching became a calling. Balubar has taught hundreds of adults and children over four decades. Her career is so long that she currently is teaching grandchildren of some of her early students.

“I feel very successful. I feel very happy to have reached out to so many people that have trusted me and who came to me as a student to learn how to portray the hula, Hawaiian culture … as well as Polynesian dance that I have taught all these years,” Balubar said.

Among her many students is 24-year-old Cheyenne Jarnesky of Waiehu, who has been dancing with Balubar for 20 years.

“Hula and Tahitian (dance) stuck out for me. It always did,” said Jarnesky, who dances professionally at the Westin Maui luau in Kaanapali. “She kind of molded me into becoming the professional hula dancer that I am today.”

Jarnesky, who is an alakai or leader in the halau, said she has continued to dance for Balubar all these years because of her approach to performance and practice.

“She will always help you along. She will never put you down,” Jarnesky said.

“(Balubar) is always happy. She is always sharing aloha with everyone. New people coming into the halau, she will take them on. She will never tell anybody no,” Jarnesky said.

Val Fernandez, who has been dancing with Balubar for more than 20 years, calls her teacher “a loving, caring person.”

Back in the day, Fernandez said she performed Tahitian and Maori dances, but hula currently is her favorite. Some of the best times with Balubar and her hula sisters are at family gatherings or parties, where they all get up to dance a familiar song.

“We all love to dance and perform,” she said.

Wendy Perry of Kahului, who has been dancing with Balubar for 31 years, calls Balubar a “kumu, friend and aunty.”

“We have learned life disciplines from her loving and caring ways - how well she treats people, how she gives unselfishly to others, how it’s never a problem to do something for you,” said Perry. “Her infectious laughter, twinkling eyes and big heart enrich our lives. What would we have done without our beloved Aunty Iola?”

Over the years, Balubar’s halau has performed at nonprofit events, health care facilities and Maui shopping centers. The halau has taken part in competitions, including the Merrie Monarch Festival on the Big Island and the Queen Lili’uokalani Keiki Hula Competition on Oahu. The halau also has participated in competitions in San Francisco and in Las Vegas.

Her dancers also have entered Tahitian dance competitions, such as the Heiva I Maui Tahiti Fete. Balubar gave a shoutout to her lead Tahitian drummer and singer, Guiller Evangelista, who has been with her for 25 years.

Some of Balubar’s dancers have gone on to professional careers at the Old Lahaina Luau and the Royal Lahaina and Westin Maui luaus, along with Tihati Productions, which produces large, professional shows for conventions, international tours, television appearances and international bookings.

Balubar continues to teach hula to people of all ages and still holds afternoon practice in Waiehu for keiki and the “gracious ladies” of the mature set.

Balubar is the daughter of Richard “Pablo” and Dorothy Lovell Caldito. Her father was a member of the former Maui County Board of Supervisors and later the Maui County Council. As a youngster, Balubar said she was known as “the Caldito daughter, the hula dancer.”

At one point in her youth, she had to stop taking hula lessons because the family could not afford them. “I didn’t know how much it was, (but) we had to stop,” she said.

Later, in the 6th or 7th grade, she was able to resume her lessons. The late Becky Kaopuiki gave Balubar an opportunity to choreograph hula.

“It was then, I gained the confidence to choreograph hula. (I) also created our own outfits,” she said.

From that point on, she never looked back and was dancing at luau and entertaining at parties “at a young age.”

“I have danced forever,” she said.

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Information from: The Maui News, http://www.mauinews.com

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