Rayann “Ray” Onzuka is a Polynesian dancer in Seattle originally from Hawai‘i with a culturally diverse background—her mother is Native Hawaiian, Chinese, and Black, and her father is Japanese. When teaching Polynesian dance, Onzuka goes by her Hawaiian name, Kalei‘okalani, which means “the lei of the heavens.”
“I was actually a very shy child, and [dancing] was my way to creatively express myself,” Onzuka said.
Onzuka started dancing when she was six years old, but instead of joining her older sister’s hula group, she joined a Tahitian group instead. After developing her passion for dance, she began teaching Polynesian dance at the age of 14 and participating in competitions at the age of 16.
“It taught me how to be a leader and it really gave me confidence,” Onzuka said. “I took it on my own to compete in solo competitions in high school and that opened new doors for me because I started traveling to compete.”
After traveling to different islands in Hawai‘i and making it as far as Japan, Onzuka found her way to the continental United States after visiting her sister in Seattle. She said moving to Seattle distanced her from her passion for dance at first, but picking up a job teaching Tahitian dance at Seattle University helped her share what she cared so much for with others.
“I realized, ‘Wow, there are actually people who are interested in my passion as well,’” Onzuka said. “[Teaching] gave me an opportunity to share it. From there, I joined Hawai‘i Club and I taught dances with them for about seven years. After my last year teaching, I realized I still wanted to keep dancing, keep teaching and sharing this with other people.”
Onzuka works at The Wing Luke Museum as the Visitor Services and Events Manager. The Wing Luke Museum connects the Seattle community to the history, cultures, and art of Asian Pacific Americans. The mission of The Wing Luke Museum resonates with Onzuka’s own goal to share her culture with others.
Onzuka formed her own dance group, Hura•iti Mana, to help spread Polynesian cultural awareness. The group’s mission is to “empower women and men to become hura•iti, or skilled dancers, through lessons in Tahitian, Hawaiian, Samoan, and Maori-style dances,” according to their website. Currently, Onzuka is the only instructor for the group.
When creating choreography for performances and lessons, Onzuka said she pays close attention to the experience of her dancers.
“I keep in mind being exciting, explosive, powerful because that’s the core of Tahitian dancing,” Onzuka said. “But I still keep in mind traditional movements, ones that have been passed down, and movements that are completely contemporary.”
However, she noticed stereotypes associated with the stories behind the dances slowly becoming lost in the entertainment aspect of Polynesian dancing. Although she wants to use dance as a catalyst for empowerment and creative expression, she said she loves performing and sharing the dances with others who might not have been exposed to Polynesian culture.
“I love the energy of it and the way we can celebrate everything we’ve worked for,” Onzuka said. “The line that I walk is culture versus entertainment, or how can those two be together? Commercializing or monetizing a cultural tradition, that’s always the balance I’m trying to find. The stereotype is often hula dancers, coconuts, and there’s no background or context to it.”
She expressed her desire to continue teaching the Polynesian dances and their legends that overlap through multiple cultures.
“I love the story of Pele, the goddess of fire,” Onzuka said. “Pele’s really powerful, dangerous, exciting, but tells a great story of love and passion and anger. She’s a great symbol.”
The symbolism of the dances Onzuka teaches are similar to Pele’s, she said, and so is her passion to teach. In the future, Onzuka hopes to expand Hura•iti Mana and organize competitions with other Polynesian dance groups in Washington and hopefully compete in other states.