Queens of the Merrie Monarch

Forty-two former Miss Aloha Hula titleholders gathered on one stage for the reunion of Nā Palapalai
Story by Katie Young Yamanaka. Photo by Elyse Butler.

Backstage at the Hawaii Theatre, dressing rooms overflow with long velvet gowns, fresh flowers and ripples of laughter. Teams of assistants navigate clutter, apply bobby pins, bright lipstick and fake eye-lashes. The sweet scent of pakalana and pīkake hangs in the air as each dancer pre-pares for her turn in the spotlight.

Regina Igarashi Pascua, Miss Aloha Hula 1978, sits on a cushioned chair, a pareo tied across her chest, one hand offering bobby pins fanned out for easy picking. Her cousin Keola Dalire, Miss Aloha Hula 1999, grabs a pin and attaches a yellow orchid to Pascua’s slicked-back bun. “Ow!” Pascua flinches. “That one hurt!” “At least you know it’s not moving,” Dalire offers.

“I remember your mom calling out, ‘I need a pin!’ and we had to be ready or we got big scoldings,” Pascua says, recalling Keola’s mother, the very first Miss Hula in 1971, Aloha Wong Dalire. All three of Aloha’s daughters—Kapua, Kaui and Keola—would go on to win the title of Miss Aloha Hula, the competition for solo female dancers that launches the annual Merrie Monarch Festival—the “Olympics of hula”—in Hilo. Pascua and two of the Dalire sisters are just a few of the dancers performing tonight in what will be the largest gathering of Miss Aloha Hula title-holders ever staged: forty-two of the total forty-nine have flown in from neighbor islands, from New Zealand to Nevada, Japan to Florida to perform a hula of their choosing for the reunion concert of music ensemble Nā Palapalai. Once the curtain rises and the first dancer steps into the spotlight, centuries of hula history will unfold.

Last September Hawaii Theatre hosted the largest gathering of former Miss Aloha Hula titleholders ever staged. The awards are conferred on a single female dancer at the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, and are one of the highest honors a hula dancer can achieve in competition.

During the Merrie Monarch competition, each dancer has mere minutes onstage to share what’s taken her years to perfect. She carries with her the mana (power) and mana‘o (beliefs) of generations of dancers before her, endless hours of grueling practice and Hawaiian-language training and the spirit of her hula ‘ohana—because no dancer can make it to that stage alone. The title of Miss Aloha Hula is coveted because it represents the hopes and heritage of the entire hālau (troupe), embodied in a single dancer.

Pascua checks herself in the mirror after the torturous pinning is done. She tosses her head back and forth—the “shake test”—to make sure each flower is secure. Dancers air-hug their hellos, puckering their lips in a faux kiss, because once flowers are in and the dress is on, everyone maintains a two-foot radius so nothing will get crunched, smashed or smudged before showtime. Then a final pule (prayer) brings all the dancers to the stage in a careful circle to bless this momentous event.

Some kumu hula (hula teachers) are well known across the world, but only a few have trained multiple Miss Aloha Hula winners: Kau‘i Kamana‘o, Māpuana de Silva, Keali‘i Reichel, Napua Greig, Robert Ke‘ano Ka‘upu, Lono Padilla, Sonny Ching and Aloha Dalire. Hilo kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho, however, tops the list with six.

Lum Ho, referred to affectionately as Uncle Johnny, prides himself on not following the crowd. “I don’t do the same songs or the same movements other people do because to me that gets boring,” says Lum Ho, who learned everything he knows about Hawaiian culture from his mother. He is among the minority of kumu who never studied hula with anyone in particular but has nevertheless become an acclaimed teacher. He is often criticized for pushing the boundaries of tradition with unorthodox movements and showmanship. Still, there’s something captivating about Uncle Johnny’s dancers.

All the Miss Aloha Hulas Lum Ho has trained are performing at the reunion concert, including Natasha K. Oda (2001), who is slated for the final solo performance of the two-day event. Oda is among the crowd favorites; her kahiko performance, “Mele Aloha No Kaulana i ka Pōki‘i e Keaomelemele,” threw the Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium audience into a frenzy during the Merrie Monarch nearly twenty years ago. They erupted in deafening cheers for Oda’s interpretation of the mo‘o (lizard) Inanea. Tonight she’s left her two children with her mother at the hotel and arrived at the Hawaii Theatre just after intermission. Oda begins her dance by throwing a fistful of silver glitter into the air, dancing the same song with which she ended her year-long tenure as Miss Aloha Hula, “I Call Him Lord.”

Oda says that her journey to becoming a Miss Aloha Hula was not intentional. Lum Ho saw her grow from diapers to ti-leaf skirt, but she never dreamed of being a solo dancer. “I really only loved dancing alongside the other girls,” recalls Oda. So when Lum Ho first asked her to enter the competition, she declined. It took a lot of soul-searching to change her mind.“I realized it wasn’t even about me at all,” she recalls. Oda won the Miss Aloha Hula title by one point, not uncommon for this high-level competition. Sharing Lum Ho’s legacy, however, was her ultimate reward. “You’re the one onstage, but you carry everyone with you,” she says.

“I would want everyone to know the amount of work it takes, not just for the dancer but for the community who played a role in raising that dancer,” says 2010 Miss Aloha Hula Mika Mahealani Solem. Above, Namakana Davis-Lim (2006, seated) With Tori Hulali Canha (2011).

Some dancers, like Oda, begin and end their hula tutelage with one kumu while others, like Ka‘ilihiwa Vaughan-Darval (1995), train with several, making the idea of legacy a bit more complicated. Vaughan learned from renowned kumu including Leimomi Ho, Chinky Mahoe and Mae Loebenstein. A dancer from age three, she would watch old VHS tapes of past Merrie Monarch festivals and knew all the hālau by style alone. “I always heard this line, ‘You don’t choose hula, it chooses you,’” she says. “But you make the choice to take the journey, and once you do you will have a kuleana [responsibility] forever,” she says, explaining that lineal responsibility in terms of the piko, a Hawaiian word that can mean navel, umbilical cord and center. “In hula we have a genealogy. It’s the piko to the piko—our foundation—connecting us to those who have passed the knowledge to us, making sure our kūpuna [ancestors] come forward with us so that the hula still looks like the hula fifty years from now.”

Most students spend six months to a year of intensive training to prepare for their fourteen minutes on the Merrie Monarch stage. They practice their kahiko (ancient) and ‘auana (modern) hula hundreds of times, ultra-critical about the technical aspects of foot and hand movements, their voices hoarse from hours of belting oli (chant) into the wind, their feet blistered from sharp turns on hard floors. All of which bring the art to its highest expression. The caliber of competitors for the Miss Aloha Hula title today is “through the roof,” says Vaughan-Darval. “Every contestant is bringing her tradition, and the kumu shine through wonderfully.”

Merrie Monarch Festival president Luana Kawelu’s office is adorned with all things hula, including photos of dancers from past festivals. Recalling her favorite performances and poignant moments, her eyes tear as she talks about the hard work and heart of each dancer. “People think, poof! It just happens,” she says. “But they don’t realize what the haumana [student], kumu and the entire hālau have to go through to make it happen.”

Kawelu’s mother, Dottie Thompson, cofounded the festival and though not a dancer herself, Kawelu has been a part of it for much of her life. “A lot of the girls start hula at three or four years old,” she says, noting that kumu scrutinize their dancers before deciding whether they are emotionally and physically ready for competition. “It’s an arduous job. These ladies have to put their life on hold until it’s through.”

The language component of the festival has taken on more importance in recent years with the addition of oli, demanding that dancers know much more than just the movements of hula. Today’s dancer needs not only to know the mele [song] and execute her steps with precision and grace but also how to connect to the land and culture. “You can imitate (the motions), but really it needs to come from the heart —the na‘au,” Kawelu says. “The dancers go to the places they are dancing about, they study the person whom they are dancing about. They make their costumes and their implements, their lei and their skirts. You have to live it.”

Seven years after the inaugural Merrie Monarch Festival, the Miss Aloha Hula competition was added at cofounder George Na‘ope’s direction. The first “Miss Hula” event was held in 1971. Later the title changed to “Miss Aloha Hula,” as Mamo Howell had already trademarked the“Miss Hula” name for her Waikīkī hula revue. Early on, each hālau would enter one contestant for the Miss Aloha Hula competition, but she would choose to dance either kahiko or ‘auana, unlike today’s contestants who perform both kahiko and ‘auana and also compete for a Hawaiian- language award.

Aulani Newalu Young (1972) was the first to receive the Miss Aloha Hula title as it’s known today. “I was in my early twenties when I won, and now I’m 69 and still dancing,” says Young, who performed on the first night of the Nā Palapalai reunion concert as the oldest dancer to take the stage. “I have been dancing hula from the age of four. First, under Auntie Kau‘i Zuttermeister, then for Mary Wong—Aloha Dalire’s mom—and I stayed there until my sister started Halau Kehealani. In 1972 the girl she entered got sick the day of the competition. So it was a lucky thing I fit the girl’s dress, because Uncle George [Na‘ope] called my sister and told her to put me in instead. I chose to do ‘auana, and I haku’d [composed] my mele ten minutes before I went on,” says Young. Being on-stage with Nā Palapalai and performing again, Young says, made her feel like she was floating, “Like I did the night I won.”

Hula dancers have an on-off switch, explains Kuana Torres Kahele, a dancer himself and also one of the trio of musicians who form Nā Palapalai. “Once you’ve got it, you can always turn it on. Granted, as the years go by, the physical part might get harder, but you never lose the ability to carry yourself that way,” he says. “That’s the hardest thing, and the Miss Aloha Hulas do that. As soon as they start moving, it’s like there is a cloud under their feet and they are floating all over the stage. When they tap into the energy of the mele, they have that well of emotion to draw from. A hula motion becomes a hula emotion.”

Kaui Dalire (1992) and Keola Dalire share a dressing room with Kehaulani Enos (1997) and Jasmine Kaleihiwa Dunlap (2015) at tonight’s show. Fully coiffed and ready to dance, there’s nothing left to do but reminisce. When Kaui won she was 18 and had just graduated from high school. Her older sister, Kapua, was the reigning Miss Aloha Hula. Of course, when you are the daughter of the first Miss Hula, expectations are high.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it because of the fear of failing and not being as good as my mother and sister,” she recalls. When she won, Kaui remembered not to repeat her sister’s “ugly cry” that made the newspaper the year before. “But my next thought was of my poor little sister who was
only 11 when I won. For her the pressure was the most.” Kaui, who is now a kumu hula herself, says when she was young she took hula for granted. “I did it because I had to do it. When you have a kumu hula as a parent, you are being trained 24/7. But being Miss Aloha Hula helped me to see the beauty of hula through my own eyes, and it changed my life.”

The members of Nā Palapalai – Kuana Torres Kahele (left), Kapulanakehau Tamure (middle) and Keao Costa – joined in for the final dance of the evening, which was followed by smiles, hugs and tears shared by all.

From all around the world, these Miss Aloha Hulas returned to their roots for the two nights of sold-out concerts. The audience at the Hawaii Theatre was brought to its feet as well as to tears, proving that a Miss Aloha Hula dancing to her favorite mele can still bring down the house.

“In the spirit of the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, we’re going to do what all the kumu hula normally do at the end: We’re just going to hula,” Kahele announces. His declaration is followed by lots of chatter from the Miss Aloha Hulas gathered on-stage, who are shouting out different songs. “Will you guys stop telling me what to sing? Hello! It’s my choice!” Kahele interrupts playfully. “OK, now you can holo [go] and make formations. This is your last hurrah before you retire, so make it count. You’ve got three verses!” As the vamp begins, smiles brighten on cue and dancers stand tall, shoulders back, right foot pointing forward. Kahele announces them one last time: “Follow us, girls, the Miss Aloha Hulas of Merrie Monarch!” HH