Sitting on the third floor of a lovely hotel at sunset, gazing out the wide windows at palm trees and the beach beyond, sipping a tropical drink with an umbrella in it, surrounded by aromatic tropical flowers, including the fresh orchid lei that was placed around your neck with a friendly “Aloha” when you arrived : are you in a resort hotel on a Hawaiian island?
Actually, you are at Santa Barbara Inn’s restaurant for Pacific Fusion, the monthly evening-long tropical dance extravaganza put on by Hula Anyone?, Santa Barbara’s only hula school.
“We get hired for a lot of private events, from bar mitzvahs to birthdays to anniversaries to memorial services,” said Angelita Eller, founder and director of Hula Anyone?, which is home to a busy professional performance troupe. “We’ve traveled as far as Las Vegas, Palm Springs, and the Hawaiian islands to perform.”
Francesca Basa, mother of one of Eller’s dance students, is her partner in creating Pacific Fusion. The two envisioned a regularly occurring Santa Barbara/Hawaiian luau and set their sights on the Santa Barbara Inn restaurant, recently vacated by Fresco at the Beach and now standing empty. Once the wheels began to turn, everything fell into place surprisingly quickly. “From the seed of conception to materialization was seven weeks,” said Eller with a laugh.
They wanted to give locals and tourists alike a transformative experience of Polynesian hospitality and culture in a one-stop evening’s entertainment. “You know how it is these days,” said Eller. “You go to dinner, and then, ‘What do you want to do now?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Let’s go to the movies.’ Okay, back in the car and to the movies. But this is a whole evening in one place, with dinner, music, dancing-and what a view!”
In addition to cocktails, dinner, and a professional Polynesian dance show, the evening is capped off with a set of jazzy, funky dance music from the Mari Martin Band. Martin is known by many as longtime lead vocalist with popular Santa Barbara band Area 51. “I am a bit obsessed with Hawai’i,” said Martin, “so naturally I jumped at the chance. I am so grateful and excited to be a part of this magical event.”
Plumerias and orchids for the leis are flown in fresh by a supplier in Hawai’i, while the other flowers festooning the room, including Anthurium, Protea, torch ginger, and Stargazer lilies, are grown locally by Lisa Carter. You many want to bring a light sweater-the temperature is kept cool to help the flowers stay fresh.
Dinner is provided by Duo, with offerings including vanilla- and pineapple-glazed Mahi-mahi and a grilled Kurobuta pork chop. “The food has an island flair, presented in an artistic way,” said Eller. “We also want to promote good health, so all of it is organic whenever possible, as well as fresh and local.”
Pacific Fusion will take place the first Saturday of each month, with a special show on Friday, July 4th, integrating the city’s fireworks display. Regular Friday shows may be added in the future.
At the event’s inaugural evening on June 7, the dancers were polished and professional, but also accessible, with a warmth that radiated to the audience. The evening’s fusion extended to the music as well. Recorded tunes blended with live percussion, traditional and newer Hawaiian and Tahitian songs were used, and one number was a hula-swing blend with Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin.
Born in the Philippines, Eller has been in Santa Barbara for 36 years. She first learned Hawaiian dance as a child in PE class. Later, at San Francisco State University, she became involved with the Hawaiian student organization.
“When I moved to Santa Barbara, there were hula classes offered through the City Recreation Department,” she said. “I began attending as a student, and six months later, when the master teacher had to go back to Hawai’i for a family emergency, she asked if I would take over the studio. So that’s how I got thrown in. I went on to develop it into what it is today. I don’t just teach the dance and culture of the islands; it is more a lifestyle. My goal is to teach common consideration for everyone and for learning. Even the little kids learn respect and acceptance and support. It’s a very strong community in itself.”
So what is the connection between the Hawaiian islands and Santa Barbara?
“Santa Barbara is such an island in itself,” Eller said. “You have the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. We have the temperate climate. People here are laidback and into enjoying nature. The lifestyle is very similar to the islands.”
And with Pacific Fusion here on our beachfront, the spirit of Hawai’i has come home.
Pacific Fusion is presented the first Saturday of the month plus Friday, July 4th, from 5:30-10:30 p.m., at the Santa Barbara Inn (901 E. Cabrillo Blvd.). For more information, call 451-0707.