Native Intelligence: Kaua‘i

Stepping Up

Story by Coco Zickos. Photo by Mallory Roe.

Once upon a time, country line dancing was a thing in Hawai‘i. Rumor has it that a couple visiting from California brought it to Kaua‘i decades ago and started a fad. It faded as fads do, but now it’s making a comeback, and Jeffrey Callejo Jr. is at the front of the line. Callejo leads the Kaua‘i Line Dance Group, which performs at events around the Garden Isle.

No longer strictly a country music phenomenon, line dancing, while still a traditional mix of styles such as the cha-cha and waltz, has evolved over the past decade. Callejo broadened its appeal even further by staying ahead of these trends and teaching his students the classics along with steps set to pop music. Within the line dancing world, there are few more respected figures than Callejo, who’s been called the Jo Thompson Szymanski of Hawai‘i, referring to the “Queen of Line Dance,” who choreographed some of the form’s best-known dances. “I kind of blush with that one because I don’t think I could ever get to her level,” Callejo says.

Since he stumbled upon family members practicing a line dance called the Water-melon Crawl in the ’90s—and discovering it was less do-si-do and more Electric Slide —Callejo was hooked. He mastered line dance and started teaching, essentially reviving line dance on Kaua‘i. After a break in the mid-2000s, he stepped back up to head the Kaua‘i Line Dance Group. “This time,” he says, “I revived it more.”

Dancers decked in cowboy hats and boots came out of the woodwork to attend his inaugural 2018 Hawai‘i Line Dance Festival in Līhu‘e. He put another notch in his dancing belt last year when the group performed at the Las Vegas Dance Explosion, where world-famous line dancers gather annually. Callejo not only brings together dancers from every island (enthusiasts make trips to Kaua‘i to scoot their boots to his dance); his choreography stretches across the Pacific, to the Mainland and Australia. At shows, audience members are often inspired to jump onstage and join the performers.

The Kaua‘i group is growing and offers residents and visitors a little nightlife on a sleepy island. Callejo intends to continue teaching and hopes to woo Szymanski to Hawai‘i next year. “We’re a little dot on the map,” he says, “and I want to make that dot that much bigger.”