Interviewed in the fall of 2005 to help start a Polynesian dance club at Paloma Valley High School in Menifee, Monica Martin was thrilled to participate. More than a decade later, she still oversees Ohana Mahi Aloha (Family of Strong Love), the longest-running school dance club that has grown from about 10 students to nearly 70 this year.
“My link with Polynesian culture goes through my husband’s family; her grandmother Alma was born and raised on Oahu. She grew up dancing, singing and playing the ukulele,” said Martin, who is Library Media Tech in high school. “My daughter became fascinated with dancing when she was eight and I enrolled her in a halau (hula school).”
Ten years ago, when she was a middle school student, Annette Martin began helping her mother teach and choreograph for the afterschool club.
“Without her, this club would have collapsed many years ago,” said Monica Martin. “When she started high school herself, she was the main driving force behind the success of our club and I am very proud of that. What she taught continues to be passed on to new members and continues to bring life at this club.
Annette Martin always helps lead the girls during warm-ups and teaches them the choreography.
“When I started high school here, I was the lead choreographer for four years,” said 22-year-old Annette Martin. “I always try to help whenever I have the chance.”
Learning the dances unique to the Polynesian culture of Hawaii, Tahiti, and New Zealand isn’t the only skill students gain from this club. They discover the culture itself, the meaning of the dances and the costumes that correspond to specific dances. Monica Martin asks the members to make their own costumes – sometimes learning how to sew along the way. She used to make all the costumes at first, but with the number of students, she now says that’s no longer possible.
“I design the costumes after a lot of research and sometimes I make a sample and then give them instructions on how to make their own,” said Monica Martin, 50. “As we learn the different dances, we also need to honor those cultures with the appropriate attire for each type of dance.
The club started with girls only, but for the past six years membership has been opened up to boys and this year eight of them are learning warfare and other cultural dances traditionally performed by Polynesian men.
“Many members say they join our club to get out of their comfort zone and try something new and different,” said Monica Martin, of Perris. “I think patience and diligence are two essential skills for learning (this style of) dance.”
Club president Hailee Milam had always played sports like football and softball before discovering the dance club during freshman orientation.
“I thought it was beautiful and I wanted to do it for my high school life,” Hailee, 15, said. “I went to the first training and I loved it and I never stopped. It also keeps me in great shape.
Freshman Cassie Hernandez was inspired after seeing a video of pop star Shakira belly dancing.
“I’ve always loved dancing and I love learning how to move my hips well,” 14-year-old Cassie said. “There’s so much positive energy here and the girls are really great.”
Sophomore Bryanna Martin (no relation to Monica) wanted to get involved in something at school and be part of the club family she witnessed.
“They make me feel like I’m cared and loved, and dancing makes me feel so good and energetic,” Bryanna, 15, said. “It helps me get through the day looking forward to our meetings.”
Bi-weekly practices can last over two hours a day and take place in the media center/library where Martin has worked for 18 years.
Before joining the club, freshman Emma Muñoz never thought of herself as a dancer even though she always loved music.
“I have friends here and it’s a great atmosphere; everyone is watching out for each other,” Emma, 13, said. “I like discovering new places and I think it is important to discover different cultures. Even if it’s very demanding, I like to be busy.
Senior Nalani Kamalii has Hawaiian ancestry but had never danced before.
“I wanted to learn more about my culture and I appreciate it so much,” said 17-year-old Nalani. “My ohana is my home away from home.”
The group has been invited to participate in community events over the past few years and will perform at the Southern California Fairgrounds in Perris on October 1.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect date of the band’s performance at the Southern California Fair. The performance is October 1.