by Mallory Moad
For women “of a certain age” who are interested in a dance performance experience, it can be difficult to find a school or group that’s the right fit. Classes marketed as being “for seniors” give the impression that if you’re over 50 you’re as breakable as glass, while some performance groups have a creepy, patronizing approach that can be downright insulting: “Look at them go! And to think they’re all over 60 years of age, wow!” Yeah, right.
The 35 members of the Sassy Ladies of The Polynesian Club of Fresno don’t buy into this foolishness. Ranging in age from late fifties to mid-eighties, they are confident and talented, regardless of how many trips they’ve made around the sun. And far from being fragile, these women are fierce.
The Polynesian Club of Fresno was established in 1972 by Linda and Kolei Fiefononga Kuma and began as a show for their son’s first birthday. Fast forward to 2019. The club now has 400 members, a permanent studio, a wide variety of classes for all ages, and a busy performance schedule. The Kuma family is the heart and soul of the Polynesian Club of Fresno. Linda’s granddaughter, Martha, is the director and choreographer of the Sassy Ladies; Martha’s nephew, Kolei, is her assistant. Both of them teach classes for the club and perform as well.
The club’s philosophy, “No Te Here O Te Hiroa,” means For The Love of The Culture. That belief goes beyond dance and music. It includes values that are inherent in the Polynesian way of life—respect, family, and generosity—and the Sassy Ladies have embraced it in a big way. There is no criticism here, no backstabbing or judgment. It’s a supportive sisterhood where there is no fear of making mistakes in front of one another. Caring about each other in and out of class, they share stories about kids, grandkids, and vacations, as well as trials and tribulations. They hold each other’s hands during rough times and celebrate the good with gusto. They have each others’ backs and they love, love, LOVE to dance.
That’s what they do and they do it a lot. The Sassy Ladies have participated, and placed, in prestigious competitions nationwide. They’ve performed by invitation in Tahiti and Hawaii. They appear in the yearly Fresno City College Asia Fest along with other groups from the Polynesian Club of Fresno, and on June 29, they will be onstage at Fresno’s Warnor’s Theater in the club’s annual recital, Summer Hoike.
Although the Sassy Ladies come from a variety of professional backgrounds that include education, nursing, and graphic design, they have one thing in common: the reason for joining the group. “This is our time. This is for us,” says Ernestine Gomez. Her friend, Heidi Thomas, agrees. “The muscles don’t work like they used to, but this is for me.” These women are doing it for themselves. Dancing with the Sassy Ladies is an escape from job stress, a break from family chaos, and a reward for just putting one foot in front of the other every day.
Their journeys to becoming Sassy Ladies are equally diverse. Christy Wood has been a member since 2005 and learned about the group from her son’s girlfriend. Some have been dancing with the club since they were teenagers and have risen through the ranks, while others have been inspired by their children’s involvement.
Some have extensive dance experience, others, not so much, but that’s not really the point. Cindy Arnold sums it up this way: “We live and breathe the Aloha spirit. We may not all be from the Islands but the Islands live in us. These ladies are my Hawaiian Ohana, my family.”
Polynesian dance is storytelling. A Hula that tells the stories of these fabulous women would show us grace, empowerment, the beauty and intensity of their friendship, and their enthusiasm for dancing. But most of all, it would be sassy.
My name is Mallory Moad and I hope I’m as sassy as these ladies when I grow up.