Always on the move

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Not only is Zumba Fitness a lot of fun, it’s also a metabolism booster. Keoni Manuel says a one-hour class can burn up to 900 calories. DONNA HO photo

Spend any time with Keoni Manuel and there’s a good chance you’ll walk away with a little more bounce — and quite possibly, a shimmy and a shake — in your step.

“I’ve always had a lot of energy,” he said. “It’s a good fit for what I do.”

For nearly two decades, the dance and Zumba Fitness instructor has inspired others to find their rhythm — and at times, their self-confidence, too.

“I see people make repairs from the inside out,” he said. “It feels good to be a part of that.”

Manuel took his first steps — dance steps, that is — as a toddler in his hometown of Honolulu.

Keoni Manuel of Maui Hot Lava DanceFit Studio is making exercise fun again — one hip shimmy at a time.

“I learned Filipino dance when I was 3 years old,” he said. “I knew, even back then, that I was going to dance for the rest of my life.”

By the time he was 13, Manuel had expanded his repertoire to include ballet, jazz, tap, Korean, Spanish, Mexican and Polynesian dance.

“I loved it all, but I really fell in love with Polynesian dance,” he said. “I decided to make it my livelihood.”

When he was 16, Manuel took the stage at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort’s Long House as a performer in an international dance show, and later, as a backup dancer for Spanish-American singer, musician and actress Charo. At the age of 21, he landed a job as a musician on an interisland cruise ship — a gig that gave him an opportunity to explore the Neighbor Islands.

“I loved Maui the most,” he said. “I promised myself I’d move here someday.”

A few years later, Manuel made good on his promise: He packed his things and moved to Maui, where he quickly made a name for himself in the music and dance scenes.

Then, in 2000, he started his own hula halau in Wailuku.

“It was a dream come true,” he said.

Seventeen years later, he’s still teaching and performing alongside his students, and relishing every minute of it.

“Watching them be passionate about dance and the culture . . . that’s the reward for me,” he said.

Seven years ago, Manuel says, his life took an unexpected turn.

“I was on the elliptical machine at the gym and there was a Zumba class happening,” he explained. “My best friend was there with me; he said I should check it out, but I told him it wasn’t my style. I had no interest in Zumba at all.”

But Manuel says his friend wouldn’t take no for answer, so he begrudgingly agreed to give it a try.

“I only said yes so he’d stop bugging me,” he laughed. “I really didn’t want to do it.”

But Manuel says everything changed once the music started playing.

“It wasn’t a workout, it was more like a discotheque party,” he said. “Lo and behold, I loved it.”

So much, in fact, that a few months later, he became a licensed Zumba Fitness instructor and, the following year, a certified Athletics and Fitness Association of America instructor. He now teaches several different fitness formats, including R.I.P.P.E.D, CIZE, POUND and all formats of Zumba Fitness. Evidence of his passion for fitness can be found on the back wall of his Kahului dance studio, which is full of framed certificates, awards and recognitions. Manuel says there are more credentials to come.

“I will be doing this for a lifetime,” he said.

He’s certainly come a long way in a short time, but Manuel says his greatest source of pride is seeing Zumba participants take control of their health and gain self-confidence.

“I’ve seen so many transformations over the years — and not just physical transformations,” he said. “I see people have more confidence in themselves. Some of them start off hiding out in the back row, and as the weeks go on, they make their way to the front. Everyone is on a separate journey and I’m here to help them along the way.”

Manuel is packed with energy and always on the move, both in and outside the dance studio.

“I don’t have any days off,” he said. “But it’s OK, because I love what I do.”

When he’s not working up a sweat in the studio (he teaches 16 classes a week, including a free first-come, first-serve Zumba class on Sunday mornings) or directing and performing with his halau, he’s working as a seasonal entertainer for three cruise lines and the Maui Visitors Bureau.

“I’m always on the go,” he said. “But I like it. It keeps me on my toes.”

Manuel currently oversees two Maui Hot Lava DanceFit Studio locations — at Maui Mall and the Outlets of Maui. A new location at The Shops at Wailea is scheduled to open April 1. He hopes to open more studios in the years to come and is working to get his signature workout, Polyfit, accredited by the AFFA.

“If it’s approved, it could go worldwide,” he said.

Maui Hot Lava DanceFit Studio’s classes are open to men and women of all ages and fitness levels.

“No experience necessary,” Manuel said. “Just come and see what format works for you . . . and come ready to have a good time. It’s always a party.”

To learn more or to view a schedule of classes, visit

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer and instructor at the University of Hawaii Maui College.

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