They had seen it all before. The Ahuna kids of Kaneohe, Hawaii, would be sitting at a ward dinner minding their own business when someone would stand up and inform the audience there would be some impromptu entertainment.
The four oldest, Joseph, Ruth, David, and Angela, would look up, utensils in hand. They were pretty sure what was coming next.
“We’d like to invite the Ahunas to come forward and do their Polynesian dances,” the man holding the microphone would say.
With knowing looks at each other, the four would set down their forks, their rice would get cold, and outside to the car they’d go, pulling out grass skirts and hoops and all the other things they needed for their show.
Dad had struck again.
“He’d just volunteer us,” says Ruth of her father, Joseph. “We never knew when we were going to perform. But my dad thought the more we shared our talents, the more we’d grow.”
Ruth and her brothers and sister would step on stage, they’d spend about an hour putting on their song-and-dance show, and in the end they’d bring down the house.
And there was Dad, smiling as big as ever.
When Joseph Ahuna was attending BYU in the 1970s, he was a member of the performing group Young Ambassadors. As a college student, he traveled throughout the world performing with the group. His specialties were the Samoan fire dance and the hoop dance, popular in Native American cultures.
After he married, he and his wife, Janice, decided their children should learn these same dances. When the Ahuna children learned to walk, they also learned to dance. First came Joseph Jr., then Ruth and David and Angela, and finally Michael and James.
“I’ve been dancing since before I was born,” says Ruth, 19. She’s smiling, and she decides she better clarify. “When my mom was expecting me, she started dancing hula with my older brother right up on the stage.” Or so she’s told. Ruth doesn’t exactly remember her dancing “debut.”
Not long ago, Joseph Sr. had an idea. His children, members of the Kaneohe First Ward, Kaneohe Hawaii Stake, had performed on Hawaii’s different islands, and they’d even sung and danced in Utah, where the Ahunas have many relatives. They’d done most of their shows at ward dinners, nursing homes, and hospitals. But Brother Ahuna wanted to take his family to Japan, to the country where he had served his mission.
“I guess we could have gone anywhere,” says 17-year-old David. “But since my dad speaks Japanese, that’s where we decided to go.”
The three-week trip to seven Japanese cities last summer forced the Ahunas to hone their act and made them decide what they really wanted to do. Entertaining audiences was important, but they wanted something more. They also wanted to take a gospel message with them. They chose the theme “Love at Home,” putting together an entire show based on the hymn.
Mission presidents in several Japanese missions scheduled performances in various hospitals and rest homes. But the rest was up to the Ahunas.
Dad would play the guitar and, because of his language abilities, he would introduce his family and serve as the narrator. Joseph Jr., now a missionary, not so ironically, in the Japan Tokyo North Mission, played the ukulele, and David was on the keyboard. The girls and the younger brothers danced.
The Ahuna Adventure began in Fukuoka, where the family performed four shows. By the time they reached Tokyo three weeks later, they had performed 17 shows and given two firesides.
“We all have talents, and although we might not be the best at what we do, everyone still has talents. We felt that as long as we tried our best, smiled, and tried to give our best performance each time, everything would be okay,” says Ruth.
They remember a performance in Fukuoka when missionaries brought investigators to the show. Another time, they performed in a hospital where many of the patients were amputees. “We brought something to them that seemed to lighten their lives,” says Ruth. “And at the same time it seemed to lighten up my own life and make me a happier person.
“The fact that we were a family,” Ruth continues, “and that we were close-knit, I think, attracted many people to us. And that was our message. We were with each other 24/7, and that brought us closer because we were forced to get along. I know everybody has bad days, but we kind of grew on each other.”
“I think what we did made us actually live by the words we would sing at the end of every performance. We didn’t want to be fakes or something,” adds David. “Before our trip it was like we believed in the teachings of the gospel. But I think from this experience we grew closer as a family. And when we shared messages about the Church, we began to understand it more and believe in it more.”
Love at home indeed.
A year later the family looks back on their experience with fondness. Although none of them plans to pursue a career in the performing arts, they each know the impact they have had and continue to have because of sharing their talents.
Fourteen-year-old Angela realized that their trip to Japan was more than just one performance after another, more than Polynesian and Native American song and dance. She discovered this one night when she looked out into the audience while the family was singing “Love at Home” in Japanese and several people were crying.
“When I performed, I didn’t realize that a lot of people were looking at me. I didn’t realize that we might touch them a lot. I’d always thought I was just performing to entertain them,” she says. “But then it really brought out the message to them that families are forever and when we have a happy family, when we go to church, and when we keep the commandments, we will be happy.”
No wonder the Ahunas are always smiling.
Wilma Nautu, 19, grew up in Apia, Western Samoa, and arrived in Hawaii to attend BYU—Hawaii in 1998. One of the benefits of attending school there is the opportunity she has to work at the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC), a Church-owned facility in Laie that celebrates the cultures and traditions of the people of the South Pacific. “I’ve always been dancing. I love it. I love smiling at the people, and it makes me feel good,” she says. Wilma does native Samoan dances, as well as Maori dances from New Zealand.
Then there’s Leonard Peters. One day he’s doing the Sasa, a Samoan slap dance about killing mosquitoes and flies, and on another he’s coming over from his safety position and picking off a quarterback’s pass.
Leonard is beginning his senior year at Kahuku High School in Hawaii. His team won the state championship last year and was rated by USA Today as one of the country’s best teams. He is also in his eighth year dancing at the cultural center.
“I’ve learned a lot about my heritage by working here,” says Leonard, who came to Hawaii from Western Samoa when he was seven. “This job has given me a feel for what a mission will be like. I’ve been able to greet people, and visitors come and talk to me, wanting to learn more about the PCC and the Church. I’m glad I can share my talents.”
“I always have people waiting to talk to me after a performance, and it’s fun to answer their questions,” Wilma adds. “I might be able to help others, but I know my gospel knowledge has increased so much.”