In a small Midtown studio covered in photos and flowers of Hawaii, Louise Leiola Aquino Galla throws out her hand, extending her thumb and pinky, and laughs.

"Shaka, braddah!" she says, talking about running into other Hawaiians in Tucson.

The Old Pueblo's Hawaiian community is growing steadily, fueled largely by military transfers and expatriates driven away by the high cost of living on the islands.

On this day, every member of Leiola Hula Halau has a funny story to tell of how they met others from Hawaii.

"We park our car, put gas in, someone goes, 'You Hawaiian?'" Galla says in a thick accent, while members of her halau, or school, laugh and nod in agreement.

"The pidgin English bring us together."

Pidgin, a form of broken English and a staple of the life and community in Hawaii, is often the first part of island life lost after moving away.

"My boyfriend, who has gone to Hawaii with me, eaten the food and heard the pidgin, laughs because I come back from hula practice and he says, 'Your accent is stronger!'" adds Serina Diniega, a member of the halau who has been dancing hula since she was 5.

For Hawaiians, leaving a tight-knit community where even your neighbors are known as your 'aunties' and 'uncles,' can be difficult.

That's why many are turning to local groups, such as the Tucson Polynesian Society, to find one another.

"People from Hawaii, they come out here and the first thing they do is look for other people from Hawaii," says Lisa Leina `Ala Ibarra, instructor at Halau Hula O Leina `Ala. "That's their security. To know people from your homeland that you can lean on gives you that family feeling that Hawaii is all about."

Tucson's Hawaiians can also be found in Hawaiian-themed restaurants.

The owners of both Lani's Luau and Northshore Hawaiian Cuisine are from the islands, as are the teachers of two hula schools here in Tucson, Leiola Hula Halau and Halau Hula O Leina `Ala. One such restaurant, Golden Spring Hawaiian BBQ on North Wilmot Road, recently closed.

The Arizona Aloha Festival, an annual two-day event in Phoenix, draws more than 80,000 in celebration of the Pacific Islands, and the Phoenix-based club Lau Kanaka No Hawaii consists of about 225 families.

"When my husband first came out here in 1963, he used to look for Hawaiians everywhere," says Anne Stillman, membership chairman of Lau Kanaka No Hawaii. "He used to look in the phonebook under the 'K's' and there were none. Now the Hawaiians have come to Arizona."

While a move from Hawaii to California is more common, Stillman says she thinks the rising cost of living there has pushed islanders inland to Arizona.

But being Hawaiian is not a prerequisite to getting involved in Hawaiian clubs or hula schools.

Many people who have never been to Hawaii are members of Lau Kanaka, Stillman says, and Tucson's hula schools are filled with dancers who have been to Hawaii only on vacation but feel pulled to adopt the culture as their own.

"There are people that will tell you they have a feeling they belong to Hawaii," Stillman says. "Somewhere in their soul, they feel a connection."

Christy Friske-Daniels, a member of Halau Hula O Leina `Ala who is not from Hawaii, can relate.

"Ever since I was little, I was fascinated with Hawaiian culture," Friske-Daniels says, gold Hawaiian bracelets adorning her wrists.

"My grandmother brought me little hula dolls when I was 4, and since then, it's all I've wanted to do."

From taking up Hawaiian dance to attending a local luau, Tucsonans are immersing themselves in the Hawaiian culture to learn more about the islands or to reconnect with their roots.

"You find people with the aloha spirit, regardless of their race, that are from Hawaii," Ibarra says. "That aloha spirit is within a person. . . . That kind of love just grows."

Kelly Lewis is a journalism senior at the University of Arizona who is apprenticing at the Star. She grew up in Kailua on the east side of Oahu.