Four Hawaiian Goddesses Take the Stage With a Contemporary Twist

Oh My Goddess!, Iona Contemporary Dance Theatre’s first new production in eight years, debuts in September. We got the inside scoop from founder Cheryl Flaharty.


You would never guess from looking at Cheryl Flaharty’s intricate costume designs that she just learned how to draw a few years ago.


Flaharty, who founded Iona Contemporary Dance Theatre in 1990 and choreographs all of its performances, says she gave herself the title “artistic director” because she didn’t feel qualified to put “costume designer” after her name. But she changed her mind—and rightfully so—after work began on Oh My Goddess! (Ola Ko‘u Akua Wahine), which premieres Sept. 29 at the Hawai‘i Convention Center.



Oh My Goddess! is the first new production from Iona in eight years. The gallery-style performance will feature contemporary representations of four of the most powerful goddesses in Hawaiian mythology: Pele, Hi‘iaka, Nāmaka and Poli‘ahu, exhibiting the strengths of women, as well as the connection they have with the earth.


SEE ALSO: Oh My Goddess! Reimagines Hawaiian Mythos




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Cheryl Flaharty handpicked dozens of fabric from B&J Fabrics in New York City to create each of the four goddess gowns. This Italian Chantilly lace bodice is for Pele. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


“In the beginning, I thought: ‘I’m not really trained, I’m not really a costume designer,’ but I was working on Pele the other day, and I said to myself: ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ And I’m a pretty modest person,” Flaharty says. “So, when I think that, you know that it’s gonna be good.”


Each dancer will have her own 20-by-20-foot square on the dance floor, covered with a mirror finish and customized lighting from Hawai‘i Stage & Lighting. Flaharty says the dancers will most likely be completely still when the audience walks in and then will come to life after a Hawaiian oli. One score of music, composed by David Kauahikaua, will play the whole time, and the audience won’t be able to see all four dancers at once.


For Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, Flaharty designed and created a costume inspired by the Victorian era. Pele’s skirt, a whopping 8 feet in diameter, is made with hula hoops, a high-shine “liquid look” fabric with monofilaments (single continuous strands of synthetic fiber), spandex, Chantilly lace and “blood, sweat and tears,” Flaharty says.


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In the three decades since Cheryl Flaharty founded Iona, her “gothic” version of Pele is one of the biggest costumes she’s ever created. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


“I think it’s a lot to be presenting or portraying a deity or a goddess,” says Sarah Hodges, the dancer who plays Pele. “We’re being asked to step up. It’s this intangible requirement of our insides and of our outsides, and that’s just a really cool thing—I mean, in life, how often are we going to be asked that?”


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Hi‘iaka’s costume in progress. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino



Hi‘iaka, Pele’s sister and the patron goddess of hula, portrayed by Rikita Turner, also has a hoop skirt, though hers is inspired by a pā‘ū, a traditional Hawaiian skirt. Hi‘iaka’s costume, covered in flora, is heavily influenced by the forest. Every ti leaf on every stem, every petal on each ‘ōhi‘a is painstakingly handmade—even the 60 feathers that act as hāpu‘u ferns attached to the skirt are hand-dyed to achieve a gradient of dark to light green.


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Cheryl Flaharty with Poli‘ahu’s costume. Here Flaharty explains that the bodice of the gown is made using the lauhala technique, the traditional Hawaiian art of weaving leaves. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino



For Poli‘ahu, the Hawaiian goddess of snow who is believed to reside at the summit of Maunakea, Flaharty designed a costume inspired by a warrior. She’ll be portrayed by Devaki Goodman-Robinson. The costume is decorated with pictures of several constellations in the night sky and key figures in Hawaiian history, such as Queen Lili‘uokalani and Princess Ka‘iulani, which are in clear circular discs. Flaharty says the costume, which brings to mind a telescope, “is like a healing for what’s going on on Maunakea.”


Perhaps even more intricate and challenging than Pele’s enormous skirt is Poli‘ahu’s cape. Inspired by an ‘ahu‘ula, a traditional Hawaiian cape, Flaharty’s rendition consists of 50 rows made of 300 ruffles of tulle. Julia Gremp, the seamstress who’s been working on the 4-yard-long cape, says each row took her two and a half hours to complete.


Gremp is one of several of Flaharty’s “sweet Menehune,” as she calls them, her team that helps bring her visions to life. Flaharty credits the execution of the bulk of her work to longtime friend and seamstress Dee Laris.


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Dee Laris, who is in her 70s, started sewing to make her own clothes and purses for work. For 12 years, Laris has worked alongside Cheryl Flaharty, though she’ll be retiring after the duo complete the pieces for Oh My Goddess! Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


“I hate sewing,” Flaharty says. “It just takes too long.”


Before Flaharty learned how to draw, Laris says that Flaharty would mostly describe ideas to her. She says she’s grateful Flaharty eventually took those design classes at UH, calling them a “game-changer.”


The two have worked together, and grown together, for 12 years. “When Dee told me she’s retiring after this one, I said: ‘Let’s just make the biggest costumes we’ve ever made!’” Flaharty says.


SEE ALSO: Two Hawai‘i Dancers Cast in “Michael Jackson ONE” in Vegas



The fourth goddess gown, for Nāmaka, the Hawaiian goddess of the sea, was the first that Flaharty designed and completed with Laris. Flaharty’s rendition of Nāmaka wears a lei po‘o made of plastic, inspired by glass artist Dale Chihuly, representing the plastic in the ocean that Nāmaka transforms into sea flowers and shells. The dancer who portrays Nāmaka in the upcoming show, Elizabeth Maximin, made her first appearance in the costume at the premiere of Raise Hawaiki in 2019, a symphony about the voyages of Hōkūle‘a. Poetically, Flaharty drew up the initial design while she was in Hāna, near Kaihalulu Beach—the place where Pele and Nāmaka had their final battle.


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This is Nāmaka’s 12-panel dress with a boned corset, which is then draped over with a gold and silver woven fabric. Nāmaka’s waves, as seen in the background, will be attached to Elizabeth Maximin, the dancer who will embody Nāmaka, with a metal belt. For the color scheme, Flaharty was inspired by the ocean and opted for light to dark blues in silk organza fabric. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


Childhood Inspiration

Flaharty says she first learned about Hawaiian myths and legends at a young age. She was 6 when she and her family moved to O‘ahu, after her Air Force father put in a request to relocate, hoping the warmer climate would help with his wife’s rheumatoid arthritis. As a result of her mother’s illness, her parents hired help for work around the house.


“This one housekeeper we had used to tell me about Pele, and about the white dog walking on the lava, and how Pele would appear at a funeral in a Victorian dress and no one would know who she was, and she’d disappear like smoke,” Flaharty says. “And those stories were really the beginning of my interest in mythology.”


Flaharty, who grew up in Foster Village and went to Radford High School, may not have had a natural flair for drawing, but she did for dancing. She went on to become a dancer in New York City in the late ’80s, when velour and big hair were both at their height. She never forgot her roots, though, and she always had bigger plans.


“Hula was my first form of dance. My mom enrolled me in it, and I had a real knack for learning it and learning the choreography,” Flaharty says. “I used to produce shows for the neighbors as a little girl. We’d even have intermission and refreshments. … But I knew that I wanted to be a choreographer. And it was very clear that I had a vision, you know?”



Oh My Goddess!, Sept. 29–30, 8 p.m., Oct. 1, 4 p.m., $55 general admission, $45 students and seniors, Hawai‘i Convention Center, 1801 Kalākaua Ave.,, @iona360