A rainbow of skirts sways to the monotone chant that undulates like gentle ocean waves, punctuated with beats of a gourd drum.
As the tempo increases, the sinuous movements of students' arms and legs gain speed without losing a synchronized step. Suddenly, a whoop like the call of a tropical bird interrupts the song and breaks the dancers' intense concentration.
"Watch your hula pose," warns instructor Pekelo Day, still thumping his drum against a woven mat on the floor.
"No more cheers, though," one dancer says.
"Yeah, it throws me off," another chimes in.
Seasoned dancer Leilani Glandon is the culprit, admitting later that she couldn't bottle up the exclamation often heard at traditional Hawaiian luaus to urge on the dancers.
"It just comes out sometimes," says Glandon, 35, of Phoenix.
Glandon's enthusiasm is just one facet of the "aloha spirit" that awaited Day in his new Southern Oregon home. The "kumu hula" — Hawaiian for hula master — moved from Hawaii's Big Island a year ago to Little River, a hamlet near Glide. Seeking relaxation, Day soon found himself re-immersed in hula, the ancient expression of Hawaii's religion, history and people that he's taught for 40 years. Founding an Ashland school — or "halau" — in April, Day also teaches hula in Eugene and Roseburg.
"To me, Ashland is like a sponge waiting to absorb," Day says. "I absolutely love it."
Day, 48, found an eager classroom of long-time hula dancers and students, many of whom performed for several years with the troupe Hula O Kahawai. Although troupe leaders and other local dance instructors impart considerable knowledge of hula, Day imprints the soul of Hawaii on Southern Oregon, students say.
"Doing this with Pekelo Day helps me remember the power of the land," says Grace Mantle, a 36-year-old Ashland resident who lived for a brief time on the island of Maui.
"He's bringing home here," says Verna Yungen of Central Point. "You have to grow up there, I think, to really notice the difference."
When Yungen, 59, was growing up on the island of Molokai, hula played a role in any family gathering. The dances, which illustrate Hawaiian folk tales and historic events, went underground for almost 150 years after Christian missionaries denounced hula in the early 1800s. Hula returned to prominence in Hawaiian society during the 1960s and '70s.
"It was a cultural revitalization," says Day.
"In schools, it's part of the curriculum," says Yungen.
A first-grade teacher on Molokai, Yungen left the island in her 20s and has lived on the U.S. mainland ever since. Yet she never danced hula on a regular basis before moving to the Rogue Valley in 2001. It's "just amazing," she says, how the interest in hula has grown over the past eight years.
Fitness, Yungen says, is one of hula's main attractions.
"For me, I get a good workout," she says. "I think it helps with posture.
"It's like yoga," she adds, explaining that both hula and the traditional Indian discipline promote physical awareness and mind-body coordination.
Hula, Yungen says, also keeps mental faculties sharp.
"I still have to think what comes next."
Knowing the story behind a dance helps Glandon remember her poses, gestures and footwork. Glandon started performing modern hula with her family at age 5 but learned little of hula's ancient style from her native Hawaiian father, 70-year-old Alfred Kahananui. Living with extended family on Oahu after high school acquainted Glandon with traditional ways.
"I love hula so much because it takes you out of the reality of your life," she says.
Also a children's hula instructor, Glandon hopes she can learn the traditional chants — "oli," in Hawaiian — from Day so she can lead dances with her six brothers and sisters, as well as daughters Cyona, 13, and Cortney, 10.
"My oldest daughter loves it," Glandon says, adding that her younger daughter is more interested in Tahitian dance.
"I'm hoping she outgrows it," Glandon says. "It's a big part of who she is, and I just don't want her to lose that.
"I was always grateful to my dad," she adds. "I know they'll be grateful that I made 'em stick with it."
Both girls attend Day's Friday evening classes at Ashland's Oak Street Dance Studio, and Glandon teaches kids — "keiki" — at her home on Thursdays.
For the past year, Ashland instructor Andrea Luchese has taught hula classes for women and men at Integral Dance, which also specializes in Indian classical dance. Luchese plans to expand her hula offerings during the month of July into a mixed-gender, mixed-level class Wednesday evenings in Lithia Park. About 40 of Luchese's students and members of Hula O Kahawai danced in the town's annual Fourth of July parade.
"Hula has been a part of Ashland for a while," Luchese says. "For some reason, the Rogue Valley is a place where a lot of interest in Hawaiian culture and hula is growing."
Day's arrival in Ashland prompted Luchese to reevaluate her own purpose and mission, which her kumu, Raylene Kawaiae'a, a Hawaiian native and Big Island resident, affirmed with a June series of workshops. About 100 students attended Kawaiae'a's classes in ancient and modern hula, as well as Hawaiian spiritual healing, over three days in Ashland.
"My students feel even more embraced by her coming here," Luchese says.
While Day strictly adheres to the old ways, Kawaiae'a advocates creating new forms of hula relevant to the land upon which they are performed, Luchese says.
When Kawaiae'a next returns to Ashland, she plans to teach the craft of making leis using plants and flowers that grow in Southern Oregon rather than the tropical flora of Hawaii, Luchese adds.
"It represents a bridging of culture," she says. "I think we're going to just keep growing and evolving together."
To that end, Luchese has christened her hula school "Ka Pi'o O Ke Anuenue," roughly translated as "arching rainbow" and symbolizing connections across cultures and time.
"I'm looking to find what's universal," Luchese says of Integral Dance classes, which feature her own choreography of traditional hula steps to contemporary music.
"I do my best with as much humility as I can to honor the culture as I understand it," Luchese says.
"Each person's path with hula is their own."