Puna man dances his way into popular Cirque du Soleil show

  • Kekuahiwi Woods performs in the Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson ONE show in Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy of Kekuahiwi Woods/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Pahoa High alum Kekuahiwi Woods is a permanent dancer in the Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson ONE show in Las Vegas and is on a two-week break from the show. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

Like so many young people from Hawaii, Kekuahiwi Woods left for Las Vegas to pursue better career opportunities than he could find here at home.

But unlike many in the city — which has so many Hawaii-born transplants it’s known as the Ninth Island — Woods isn’t a chef, hotel or casino worker, or Hawaiian Airlines employee. At 21, he’s a dancer in Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson ONE” show at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.


He performs hip-hop and break dancing moves in an 1,805-seat theater with the King of Pop’s music blasting from a state-of-the-art surround-sound system, plus lasers, fog machines and additional high-tech touches.

“It’s very intense. It’s Cirque du Soleil,” Woods, who is on a two-week break, told the Tribune-Herald on Thursday. “There’s a lot going on. There’s so many moving pieces, with the acrobats above you while you’re dancing. There’s multiple things going on at once.

“But you adjust to it, get used to it — and start doing 10 shows a week.”

Woods, a 2019 Pahoa High School grad, has been in the show a little more than a year. Cirque du Soleil is a pinnacle brand in theatrical entertainment, but this is a gig that Woods — whose parents, Angela and Maika, own N2 Dance Performing Company and dance school in Hilo — has prepared for all his life.

Success in his chosen endeavor, however, didn’t come without sacrifice or conflict.

“He started dancing at age 2,” Angela Woods said. “I could see he had talent for it from when he was really young, but it was something we made our kids do. And, of course, when you make your kids do it, they don’t appreciate it. So, when he was, I think, 7 years old, I told him, ‘If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to.’ Because he was kind of being a brat in the class. He was in our select company — they’re the kids that we take to do extra performances and stuff like that.

“Anyway, he said OK, he wasn’t going to do it. And that year, when we went to competition, he came with us. And he said he was so jealous of the other kids. And he said that’s the moment when he realized that he wanted to be a dancer.”

Kekuahiwi Woods spent countless hours honing his craft, training in jazz, ballet and hula, as well as hip-hop and break dancing — and even took voice lessons. Asked about singing, he laughed.

“I like to sing and act, and I’m down for it, but I’m a dancer,” he said.

During high school, Woods twice represented the Big Island in the statewide Brown Bags to Stardom talent competition on Oahu, winning the dance division both years. He traveled to Chengdu, China, to represent Hawaii and the U.S. in a music festival. And he completed high school online because he was in Waikiki’s “Rock-A-Hula” show, hip-hop dancing behind an Elvis impersonator.

Woods even enrolled briefly at Brigham Young University in Utah, performing on the school’s dunk team, springing from a small trampoline to do trick basketball dunks.

“The school part wasn’t for me,” Woods said.

To add to the restlessness, The City That Never Sleeps beckoned.

“I really like Vegas. The thing I really like is the opportunities as a performer,” he said. “There’s only so much you can do in Hawaii as a professional dancer. Realizing how big the dance scene is in Vegas and being able to connect with such high-level performers there is a really exciting thing.”

Woods quickly landed a gig in the “Rated Red” burlesque show at AREA15. His time there, however, was short-lived after he successfully auditioned for “Michael Jackson ONE.”

“It was, like, a two-week integration process, and in that time I learned about 10 numbers in the show,” he said. “It was very intense.”

Woods said his favorite number is “Smooth Criminal” from Jackson’s “Bad” album.

“They have towers on the stage, and there’s dancers on different levels of the tower. I feel cool executing that number, and I think it looks really cool,” he said.

And, if being paid handsomely to dance to the music of the most successful recording artist of the 1980s isn’t enough, Woods found a girlfriend, Scarleth, who’s also in the show.

“We get along great. We do spend a lot of time together, but I think it’s really cool,” he said. “It’s always a highlight to go on the stage at night and see my girlfriend killing it at the same time. She got into Cirque du Soleil, so she’s a very, very talented dancer and highly skilled.”

The rigors of being a Cirque du Soleil performer are the stuff of legend. The company has its own workout and fitness regimen, which fits in nicely with Woods’ work ethic.

“Outside of work, outside of performing in the show, I love taking dance classes,” he said. “I just love being involved in the dance industry there. There’s gigs going on; there’s battles going on. There’s always something with dance going on in Vegas.”

And, like almost all most successful individuals, Woods has goals and plans to achieve them.

“I love ‘Michael Jackson ONE.’ Right now, the plan is to do it for another year, two years, three years and save up my money,” Woods said. “But I feel there’s still so much more out there for me as a dancer. I would like to go out on tour, maybe cruise ships.”

He’d also like to compete on the “So You Think You Can Dance” reality TV program.

“There’s options out there.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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