Sure, she dreamed about it. But never in a "million years did I ever think it would happen."

Even now that Monique Castaneda has opened her Mau Loa Ohana, it seems surreal. The Hawaiian-themed studio in Antioch will offer guests hula lessons and even cardio workouts to island music.

Mau Loa Ohana, which means "forever family" in Hawaiian, is actually the brainchild of a friend.

It all came to fruition when Larry Alfonso, a student's father, saw the potential for Castaneda to have a bigger space.

"It was his idea," she said. "He gave me a vision of what my studio could look like ... I just couldn't pass it up."

Castaneda has been hula dancing since she was 5, with her family by her side.

She danced for a decade, took a break and later returned to the historic and traditional dance.

"It was when I went back to hula as an adult that I fell in love with it," she said. "I fell in love with the movement of your hips and how graceful the hands move as you tell a story about the island."

Although she's never lived in Hawaii, she visited frequently, soaked up the culture and became "hooked on that island bug."

An Antioch resident since 1994, Castaneda found herself teaching neighborhood kids hula out of her garage for about six years before renting a space in downtown Antioch.

"What started out as eight kids turned into 30 children and adults."


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From there, longtime fitness instructor Randi Moser "discovered" the striking dancer and encouraged her to do a fitness class with hula.

"That's how 'cardio hula' came about. Moving your hips with your knees slightly bent, doing these isolated moves, really works out your legs, hips and abs. I add everyday workout exercises with hula/Tahitian moves as we dance to the Tahiti beat, island reggae and, sometimes, I even throw in some hip hop to change it up."

While Castaneda learned from a "very traditional" hula teacher, she tends to incorporate various styles and mixes in contemporary moves.

She said her studio and teachings are a little different from other dance institutions. For example, there will be no competition events for the students.

"What makes MLO a little different is that we do a lot of shows throughout the year, giving back to our community," which includes her beloved "Hula Away the Cancer" annual fundraiser and other giving events.

Castaneda will have plenty of hula and Tahitian classes for children and adults, along with the cardio offerings. There will also be Tahitian drum workshops and a Tahitian dance workshop.

It will be a bit of a family affair with her two daughters, Alexsandra Belche and Kiana Castaneda, providing instruction, too.

While she is certainly in the giver's seat, Castaneda said she gets much more from teaching.

"When I dance I feel beautiful ... everything women want to feel," she said. "Since I've been teaching, numerous women (have told me the same thing). And, some parents have said their daughters come out of their shells and (received) confidence they never knew they had."

Business partner Alfonso knows exactly what she means. The two met when Alfonso's daughter took dance lessons from Castaneda.

"After observing what MLO is about, I knew (Monique) needed to share this experience. MLO stood for unity, giving back to community and a place where you feel like you belong ... a family," he said. "Our vision is to share this wonderful culture."

Castaneda is excited to let residents see her brightly colored and open studio come Aug. 9 when she hosts a grand opening beginning at noon.

Reach Trine Gallegos at TrineG@att.net

If you go
What: Mau Loa Ohana studio opening event
When: Noon Aug. 9
Where: 1360 Sunset Drive, Antioch
Info: 925-550-8155; http://mlohula.wix.com/mauloaohana