Each day around sunset, Waikiki’s surf lineups and beaches empty, and the lanai (outdoor veranda) at House Without a Key, the bar at the storied Halekulani Hotel, begins to fill. The crowd, a mix of well-dressed Western and Japanese tourists plus a handful of locals, comes for orchid-topped Mai Tais and the iconic postcard view of the sun dipping below the Pacific. But they’ve also come to see the nightly hula show, where a graceful, ti-leaf-skirted dancer performs beneath the palm trees. It’s the stuff of tropical fantasy—the salty breeze, stars beginning to appear, lei-wearing musicians playing Hawaiian songs on stand-up bass, guitar and ukulele—but it’s also Kanoelehua “Kanoe” Miller’s real life.
Miller, 65, began dancing hula for the Halekulani in 1977 and has since become an icon of hula in Waikiki. Hawaii Magazine once suggested that she might be “the most photographed hula dancer” in the world. Her husband even discovered her likeness on a magnet at Target one day.
Hula performances like the ones at Halekulani have been around in Hawaii nearly as long as tourists have been coming to the islands. In the 1920s, steamer ships would ferry wealthy visitors for monthlong excursions, where upon arrival, they would be greeted by gentle hula dances set to hapa-haole hits. As the pace of tourism accelerated after World War II, buoyed by air travel and the Hollywood-ification of both Hawaiian and surf culture, the nightlife scene in Waikiki thrived. Evening performances spanned from theatrical pan-Polynesian-revues to more sedate Hawaiian musical sets, often backed by solo or ensemble dancers. Today, the shows—at least the ones with professional dancers—have largely fallen away. But as long as Miller dances at the Halekulani, a piece of old-school Waikiki nightlife abides.
Born and raised in Mānoa, a sleepy suburb of Honolulu, Miller—whose heritage is Hawaiian, Chinese and German—began dancing hula at age 13 when her mother signed her up at a local hālau hula (hula school). It was the 1960s, a time when interest in the precontact Hawaiian cultural arts was experiencing a resurgence. A self-described rebel, Miller was kicked out of hula school at 16 for showing up to practice in blue eyeliner and go-go boots. She began focusing on modeling and beauty pageants, earning the title of Miss Hawaii in 1973.
When Miller landed at the Halekulani, it was something of a fluke. She filled in at the last minute for another dancer. When she showed up ultra-prepared with four costume changes, each including a fresh flower lei, and a repertoire of dances, she was asked to return for a regular weekly gig. Eventually she was dancing solo shows six nights a week. (Today, she performs twice a week.)
Since then, Miller has danced alongside Hawaii’s best musicians, including Keola and Kapono Beamer, Sonny Kamahele, Barney Isaacs and Hiram Olsen Jr. When I met with her at a recent performance, it was clear she still holds court. A steady stream of friends and guests wandered over all evening to pay their respects.
Having born witness to four decades of Waikiki nightlife, Miller sat down to talk about how the scene has changed, what it’s like to explain Hawaiian culture to tourists and what she drinks after every performance.
What did your show look like 30 years ago?
The same, absolutely the same, except I was 20 pounds lighter. I did ti-leaf skirt [a skirt made from ti leaves]. I still do ti-leaf skirt. If I have the time to make [the skirt], I will. I do cellophane skirt. Tonight, I’m going to be brave. I decided to do a two-piece sarong that shows my midriff and my lung surgery scar in the back. But I’m still wearing the same things: holokus [long fitted dresses, often in Hawaiian prints], slip dresses, cellophane skirts, ti leaf skirts, pa’u skirt [a cloth skirt with gathered waist], sarongs.
What was the service like?
If you ordered a rum and Coke, they would come with an old-time bottle of Coke and a little thing of rum and a glass of ice and would pour you this drink as you sat there. The waitress had to kneel down as she did that. The pupus were always teriyaki sticks. There used to be a dance floor. The chairs used to be set back quite far from the stage so that people could dance. They would get up and dance like [mimics ballroom dancing]. Big-band dance. But they don’t anymore.
What makes this place special?
It is the only hotel on the strip that I think supports Hawaiian music and dance. I think other hotels do lip service and say that they do, but they don’t. The other thing that makes this hotel special [is] the people who work here really take care of the guests. They recognize them. The people who work here, they imprint the guests’ face and name. Reggie, who works here at House Without a Key, he’ll know a guest and know exactly where they like to sit. Sometimes when I see a return guest, I can’t even talk to them because they’re busy talking to the wait staff.
What does it mean for you to be a hula dancer in a tourist town?
Sometimes the other hula-world people, they kind of oust you because you dance in Waikiki. They put you down because you’re a hula dancer for the tourists. I have been put down for years and years, especially in the ’90s, when the resurgence and pride of Hawaiian culture was the most prevalent.
Having said that, I really do care. I wanted to be a hula dancer for the visitor, and I’ll tell you why. The visitor only has a few days to be here and to really know who we are. If they’re fortunate enough, the mainland visitor gets to stay for 10 days. If they’re coming from Japan, four days. What are they going to know in four days? How are they going to sense what Hawaii is? If we are fortunate enough that they are here for two nights, maybe they come back for a third, they get a sense of our history, they get a sense of our lifestyle, yeah? They get a sense of our outlook through our music, through our contemporary Hawaiian music and our traditional music and by watching the dance and by looking at the costumes, because the costumes give a sense of the different eras.
Can you give an example of how a costume connects to an era?
I used to, and still do, wear a monarchy-style costume. And I can’t tell you how many times if I wear a monarchy–style costume [a dress or skirt and top that covers as much skin as possible], a Western visitor will say, “Why are you wearing that Little [House] on the Prairie outfit? That is something from us.” And I say, “Absolutely, that is from you. That is how our missionaries dressed us during Victorian times. And I am wearing a costume from the time of Kalākaua, who is the first king who said, ‘Let us dance again’ [Ed. note: the missionaries convinced Ka’ahumanu, the first queen, to ban public hula dancing in the early 19th century], and it was the Victorian period and I’m doing a dance from that period.” “Oh, did you have kings?” “Yes, we were a monarchy.” “Oh, really? What happened?” “Your country came in and overthrew us.” “Oh, really? OK.”
I used to come home late at night and thank God my husband would have the last flight — he was a pilot at Aloha Airlines — and my husband would come back at 10:30 at night and he would say, “How come you’re home so late?” I would say, “Because I was talking to a tourist and telling him what happened to us.”
Or sometimes you’re walking through a crowd and someone will say, “Where did hula come from?” Well, how are you going to in two minutes tell them where hula comes from? Usually I’ll say, “Would you mind if I come right back?” And then you do your set and you come back during the break and I’ll say, “Hello, way back in the mists of time…” But you have to tell them that hula is a mystery. They say we came from the Marquesas, that our people came from the Marquesas around the time of 600 A.D. I can’t be a history teacher for them, but I do know a little bit, and I can give them an overview.
But what got them interested in that? The dance, the music, the costumes. It started them thinking this place is more than Mai Tais. This place is more than ziplines or parasails. Then they start thinking about it, and they get into the culture. That’s what I hope to do. That’s what it’s like being a hula dancer in a tourist town — if you care. Some don’t. But if you care, that’s what you are.
What have you seen that’s changed?
I think there is less and less Hawaiian entertainment. The hotels have replaced the traditional Hawaiian trio with one person [mimics strumming a guitar] with a sound machine. Maybe one hula dancer. And the guys that are doing that kind of music are not doing Hawaiian music, they’re playing what I call cocktail music, Margaritaville music. It’s not bad, but it’s not Hawaii. [The Halekulani] is the only place that is doing Hawaii. I feel that the hotel industry is killing off Hawaiian entertainment — true Hawaiian entertainment. There’s wonderful Tihati Productions — that’s Polynesian entertainment. There’s a little bit of Hawaiian, but it’s predominately Polynesian. The Kanikapila Grille [at the Outrigger Reef] has trios. But what I’m putting on here, four sets a night, the story of Hawaii through music and dance in little snippets — there’s no show like that. And everybody says, “Oh, the tourists don’t want it.” I don’t believe that. I believe the tourists would like to see that. They’re here for Hawaii.
What’s your favorite post-shift drink?
I’m not a mixed-drink drinker. I’m a beer drinker. I’m a child of the ’70s. I’m into beer and wine. I really like New Castle and Japanese beers. I like a good English beer. That Maui Bikini beer is good. I’m not allowed to drink during the show, but I immediately go to California Pizza Kitchen and get a beer because they have the coldest beer.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]