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Hawaiian native brings hula dancing to happy hour

ENCINITAS — Loretta Cho and her chorus line of hula dancers make happy hour on Wednesdays a sublimely intergenerational experience.
Today’s Pizza & Salad, located in the Santa Fe Plaza Shopping Center, seems like an unlikely venue for an authentic Hawaiian party, but it works. In fact, it’s perfection with music provided by Frank Leong and the Moonlight Beach Ukulele Strummers.
Cho comes by her ability to transcend barriers of age, culture and inhibition naturally.
During the 1800s her great great-grandfather Kia Nahaolelua was assigned responsibility for educating Europeans about Hawaiian culture by King Kamehameha IV. The dance troupe’s name, Kia Nahaolelua O Lehua, bears his name.
Cho’s great grandfather was governor of Maui. His wife served as interpreter for Queen Liliuokalani on a voyage to meet the Queen of England in the 1890s.  
Hula dancers range from age 30 to 70-something, from flight attendants to teachers and retirees. Cho’s motto is simple: Leave your troubles at the door and remember that you don’t have to be perfect.
“I’m the most uncoordinated person around and the biggest tomboy,” said surfer Debbie Tom. “I would never get in front of people before. I’ve made friendships and improved my self-esteem. It’s because of Loretta that we all stick with it.”
Cho teaches traditional hula from 5 to 6:30 p.m. To keep things fresh she includes classic hula to familiar songs such as “Little Grass Shack” as well as Jawaiian, which blends hula with hip hop. The fun continues after 6:30 p.m. when Leong and his ukulele players fill the room and inspire moms, dads, kids and grandparents to join in a sing-a-long or stand up and hula to Hawaiian songs.
Cho ended up teaching hula in Encinitas quite accidentally. A native of Hawaii, she joined her daughter in Las Vegas six years ago after her husband of 30 years passed away. Being so far away from the ocean didn’t agree with her so she accepted the invitation of a cousin to stay in Encinitas for a while.
“I got a job and started working,” she said. “Someone introduced me to Frank Leong, who was already playing ukulele at the restaurant.”
Her class began when a man asked if she would teach the hula to his wife.
“She invited two women and we had our first lesson in the kitchen,” Cho said.
Group lessons on Wednesday nights are available for a $5 donation.  Private lessons cost between $15 and $20 for two hours of instruction.
The last Saturday of the month the group gathers on the grassy overlook at Moonlight Beach where they hula above the ocean from 9:30 to 11 a.m.
Cho, who is a LVN supervisor in the assisted living unit at Seacrest Village, promotes the health advantages of hula. 
“It helps with arthritis because you’re moving your hands and feet,” she said. “It also strengthens your mind because you have to think about what you are doing, how many steps you take forward and backward. When we dance at the beach everything moves together to cleanse our selves, mentally and physically.”
Equally important are the bonds that form.
“Being a nurse, I’ve been with people as they get close to death,” she said. “They don’t ask about their jewelry and assets, it’s their family and friends that they want to be with.”
She continues.
“We are so busy that we forget a simple hello,” she said. “That’s what Wednesday nights bring. You have to enjoy life each day.”
The Kia Nahaolelua O Lehua dancers perform locally at the Woody Festival and fundraising events including Breakfast for Santa, which benefits HeadStart. Early next year the dance troupe is planning a group tour of Hawaii.