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Cheryl Kauhane

President and Chief Executive Officer, YWCA, Hula Dancer


Photo: Ronen Zilberman

Cheryl Kauhane still remembers the day two years ago when she got a note from her kumu hula requesting that she speak with her after class.

"Here I am a grown woman and head of a large organization, and I was petrified," says Kauhane. "I thought, I'm in trouble, what did I do wrong?"

Kauhane had nothing to worry about. Instead of a reprimand, the first-year hula student received an invitation to join her halau's Merry Monarch class, a rigorous year-long preparation for the prestigious hula competition.

Joining the hula troupe, Halau Mohala Ilima, had been the latest activity in Kauhane's longtime effort to rediscover her Hawaiian roots. The Native Hawaiian was born and raised in Silver Spring, Md., and danced hapa haole hula at parties and faux luaus. When she came to the Islands to attend the University of Hawaii, she immersed herself in Hawaiian culture, eventually becoming a serious competitive paddler. (She's crossed the Molokai Channel seven times.) But Kauhane shied away from hula, a little embarrassed by her Mainland dancing experience.

"I was shocked. I didn't aspire to dance in the Merrie Monarch," says Kauhane. "I had all these other commitments, but you just can't say no to an opportunity like that."

After a "redshirt" year, a customary halau practice in which she went through all the practice and preparation, but wasn't allowed to perform, Kauhane made her appearance at last year's Merrie Monarch with her parents in the audience.

"As we walked up on the stage, I kept on thinking, oh my God, this is it, after all that practice. Please don't make a mistake," says Kauhane. "And then we started to dance and everything came natural and I thought, 'I could do this again.'"

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