As flames spread across the stage and made their way toward the curtains at the back, Joseph P. H. Ahuna Jr. (BA ’80, JD ’83) stomped frantically trying to extinguish the blazes of his failed high school talent show performance. The audience loved Ahuna’s antics so much that his Samoan Fire-Knife Dance, which was not meant to be funny, won funniest act. “I wasn’t very good at the time, but I wanted to share despite my imperfections,” says Ahuna. Since then, he has toured over 20 different countries with his family performing the Fireknife dance, the Native American Hoop Dance, the Hula, and many other cultural expressions. It’s all part of their “Ahuna Ohana” show that promotes love at home along with what Ahuna describes as “the spirit of Aloha,” which means “to give a gift from your heart to someone without expecting anything in return.” In that spirit, the Ahuna family puts on shows across the world on an entirely volunteer basis.
When Ahuna first saw a boy at the 1969 Boy Scout Jamboree perform the Fireknife dance, he decided right away he wanted to learn it. When he returned to his home in Hawai’i, his mother arranged lessons with a young Samoan woman who worked at the Polynesian Cultural Center to teach him the basics of the Samoan dance. Ahuna was only able to spend a short amount of time learning the dance, but he loved it right away. While attending BYU and participating in the Young Ambassadors performing group, Ahuna kept his eye out for other talented individuals who would be willing to teach him their acts. By the end of his time at BYU, Ahuna had performed across Asia as part of a USO tour, participated in the first Young Ambassadors group to perform in the Soviet Union in 1978, and was in the first group to take the show to China the following year, in 1979. “After finishing my time at BYU,” recalls Ahuna, “I kept thinking, ‘Does it have to end?’ and I began brainstorming ways that I could continue to serve.”
After Ahuna married Janice James Ahuna (BS ’78) and began a family, his vision for his Ahuna Ohana began to take form. “As our children were being born, instead of saying we are having a boy or a girl, I would say ‘we are having another Fire Dancer, another Hoop Dancer, or another Hula dancer,’” laughs Ahuna.
Upon graduating from BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, Ahuna opened a successful law practice on Oahu and began saving money with the hope of traveling and performing with his children. “Instead of spending money on a brand new car, or fancy things, we spent it on performances and experiences our children could enjoy together,” explains Ahuna. As his six children grew, Ahuna taught them everything he had learned growing up and at BYU. The family performances began on a smaller scale. On multiple occasions, the Ahuna family performed for schools as a part of the “No Hope in Dope” anti-drug program. They also performed at the Kailua Senior Citizen club, Pohai Nani rest home, and the Hawaiian Civic Club.
Ahuna soon determined to take the show abroad. He began calling Church mission presidents in Japan, where he had performed as a college student, and offered to perform free shows to promote missionary work in the area. Some, upon receiving Ahuna’s call, would ask, “What’s the catch?” to which Ahuna would respond, “There’s no catch. We don’t sell anything. We will pay for all of our own expenses and accommodations, we just need a place to perform.” The Ahuna family repeated this process for missions in Puerto Rico, Russia, Hong Kong, and many more. When they weren’t travelling to missions, they were performing in Germany, the Netherlands, and South Korea on special request from different organizations promoting the preservation of native cultures. The Ahunas even performed for the athletes at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City—pro bono, of course.
Now that his children are grown and living across the United States with spouses and children of their own, the “Ahuna ripple effect” is in full swing. Each family teaches its children an element of the family show and holds mini performances in their respective communities. When the whole family is invited to do a show, like the one they did in 2018 for a children’s festival in Taiwan, it doesn’t take much to blend the talents of each family member (some as young as three years old) into a cohesive and beautiful exhibition.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, with restrictions on travel and live performances, Ahuna taught his grandkids the ukulele over Zoom and had a virtual recital where he and the grandchildren performed for the rest of the family. “When I was at BYU, I learned the motto: ‘Enter to Learn, Go Forth to serve,’” says Ahuna. “So we continue to teach one another, and then we go forth to serve with the spirit of Aloha.”