The Torchbearer

La‘akea Perry and Ke Kai o Kahiki carry on the ancient tradition of kāne hula
Story by Shannon Wianecki. Photos by Ha‘a Keaulana.

In the pavilion at Lanikūhonua Cultural Institute in West Oʻahu, twelve men kneel on the cement, ignoring the agony in their shins. “Breathe,” says their kumu (teacher), La‘akea Perry. “Don’t move. Your weakness is an opportunity to grow.” Stoic and sweaty, the men belong to Ke Kai o Kahiki, a hula hālau (school) that brings the skills of Hawaiian warriors to the dance stage. Today they’re vying for a chance to perform at the Merrie Monarch, the world’s most prestigious hula competition. First they ran military-style drills for an hour; now they’re rehearsing a grueling noho (kneeling) routine. For the fifth time. On the unforgiving pavement.

When Ke Kai o Kahiki ascends the Merrie Monarch stage in April, the audience will erupt. Kāne (male) dancers are crowd-pleasers, and this polished hālau is among the most popular. Dressed in traditional malo (loincloths) and fern garlands, the men will compete to win, but that’s not all. “When you get on that stage,” Perry tells them, “you’re dancing for a higher purpose: for your family, your kūpuna [elders] who passed away, our kumu who started this hālau and everybody who has helped you on this journey.”

In a pavilion in West O’ahu, twelve men kneel on the cement, ignoring the agony in their shins. “Breathe,” says their kumu (teacher), La‘akea Perry. “Don’t move. Your weakness is an opportunity to grow.” The men belong to the hula hälau Ke Kai o Kahiki and today they’re vying for a chance to perform at the Merrie Monarch. First they ran military-style drills for an hour; now they’re rehearsing a grueling noho (kneeling) routine. For the fifth time. On the unforgiving pavement. 

Perry’s own journey started thirty years ago in Waikīkī, when the producers of Don Ho’s Polynesian Extravaganza plucked him out of the crowd. He auditioned for the show’s new hula teacher, O’Brian Eselu, who told him bluntly, “You don’t know how to dance, but if you come to my hālau, I will teach you.” From his first lesson, Perry says, “It came easily. I knew I was in the right place with the right people; we both knew.” Perry became Eselu’s star student, practicing six days a week, mornings and nights. “I dedicated my life to hula,” he says. In so doing, he followed in the dance steps of his grandparents, great-aunts and uncles—and generations of Hawaiians reaching back into time. Hula was in his blood. 

To the uninitiated, Hawai‘i’s indigenous dance might seem like casual entertainment—something performed to lilting ‘ukulele music at a lūa‘u. In fact, hula is a high art form and, for devout practitioners, an embracing way of life. For generations Hawaiians have danced to honor ancestors and ali‘i (royalty), celebrate special places and occasions, name a child, praise someone’s sexual prowess or protest an injustice. When Queen Ka‘ahumanu’s soldiers came to dismantle a heiau (temple) on Moloka‘i, the resident priests chanted and danced their dissatisfaction. 

While modern hula is perhaps more often associated with the feminine, its most adroit practitioners balance male and female energy—the apex of Hawaiian strength and beauty tempered by discipline and humility. In the past, says Perry, “Warriors were recruited from the hālau. Chiefs would come to look and select their warriors from the ranks of the advanced male dancers.” Perry learned—and now teaches—a fierce kind of traditional hula for men who can tuck a flower behind their ear, perform a suggestive ‘ami (hip rotation) and bellow out a battle cry.

When the Merrie Monarch competition started in 1971, it featured wāhine (women) only. There simply weren’t enough kāne dancers to justify male categories. Like all aspects of Hawaiian culture, hula had suffered the effects of colonization. Christian missionaries in the mid-1800s actively suppressed hula, while early tourism promoters co-opted the indigenous dance and stripped it of its deeper meaning. By the time Native Hawaiians launched a cultural renaissance in the 1970s, Hawai‘i’s legacy of mighty male dancers had almost disappeared. 

“We’re not obligated to be here. We’re not paying to be here,” says dancer Keanu Ward. “We’re dedicated to preserving the ancient art of our kūpuna [ancestors]. Celebrating natural things — the mountains, plants and ocean — it’s our way of saying thank you.”

“Kāne hula had to be re-created,” says Perry. “O’Brian was one of the pioneers. He envisioned all of the characteristics of Hawaiian males as warriors: fit, strong and balanced—something to give the people pride.” When men were finally invited to compete at the Merrie Monarch in 1976, they exploded onto the stage with powerful athleticism. Judges cried. The stunned audience watched breathlessly, then euphorically, as a missing piece of Hawaiian culture stormed back into place. 

Along with fellow kumu hula Thaddius Wilson, Eselu taught men to dance for two decades. Their hālau, Na Wai ‘Ehā o Puna—the Four Waters of Puna—followed ancient protocols. “The name was given in the traditional way,” says Perry. “Thaddius’ grandma gave three names, and they had to choose the right one.” Had they guessed wrong, they wouldn’t have received the blessing to proceed. “That’s how it was done in the past,” says Perry. “That was their way of confirming what they were doing was correct and had the blessing of the gods.” In 2000, when Eselu started his second hālau, Ke Kai o Kahiki—the Ancestral Waters—Auntie Pat Namaka Bacon christened it the same way. 

In ancient Hawai‘i strict rules dictated how hula haumāna (students) could behave. No girlfriends or boyfriends. No distractions of any sort. Obedience to the kumu was paramount. Eselu adhered to this old school; he was a strict disciplinarian who yelled and scolded students. “No one questioned him. We had to be humble and just listen and follow,” says Perry. “We couldn’t record anything or take photographs. We had to write everything down word for word, which forced me to really learn it.” Perry quickly became an alaka‘i (lead dancer) and performed for Eselu for the next twenty-three years. “I’m amazed I danced that long,” he laughs. “O’Brian believed hula needed to be a challenge. If you made it through a chant, you were like, ‘Wow, I survived.’”

Eselu was an exacting and innovative kumu. Over the years, his dancers embodied gliding tropicbirds, land-devouring lava and ephemeral vents of steam at the Merrie Monarch festival. In 2009, Ke Kai o Kahiki performed an astonishing mele ma‘i, or procreation chant, and introduced a new movement to the stage: hula ‘ōhelo, in which dancers balance one hand and foot while performing a sawing motion with the opposite hand and foot. Next they reclined all the way back to lie on their calves before popping up again—a feat that required heroic abdominal strength.

The rigor paid off: Under Eselu’s direction, Ke Kai o Kahiki accrued dozens of trophies, including best overall four years in a row. More important, the dancers offered an arresting example of how Hawaiian men could look and act in a society that had boxed them in for far too long. 

From Perry’s first solo performance, he could see that his kumu was grooming him for a role larger than lead dancer. “He introduced me to important people. He said, ‘I’m going to give you everything I know.’” Eselu knew he had limited time; he suffered from diabetes and other health complications. For fifteen years he taught hula in between dialysis treatments. In the last five years of his life, he intensified the transmission of his knowledge. He pushed Perry harder, encouraged him to return to his roots and explore his own family’s style of hula. Perry began teaching his fellow hula brothers while Eselu watched hawklike from the sidelines.

One night Eselu called Perry in tears. He’d had a revelation. “The disciplinarian way worked for me,” he said. “But I’ve seen how you work with the boys. The result is long-lasting.” Compared with his kumu, Perry was soft-spoken—authoritative but not as harsh. Eselu gave him permission to take command of Ke Kai o Kahiki and to lead the haumāna in a gentler way. “Teach them with aloha,” he said.

“Gentle” isn’t the first word that comes to mind during the hālau’s Saturday morning practice, but aloha is abundant. The men sprint barefoot back and forth across the lawn, drop down into push-ups and a torturous exercise called duck squats: wide-stance squats with lifted heels. “Our style, ‘ai ha‘a, is bombastic,” says Perry. “It’s really difficult. We tap the limits of what the body can do in terms of balance, strength and agility, so it really means something when you learn a dance and accomplish it.”

Though Ke Kai o Kahiki is best known for its kāne hula, it’s not exclusive. Perry welcomed wāhine (women) into the hālau in 2016, after the wife of one of the male dancers, Moana Henriques, asked to join.

The hālau’s training regimen is more strenuous than most and incorporates the natural environment—the kind of challenges Hawaiian warriors of the past would tackle. Dancers in training hoist boulders chest-high, swim laps weighted with rocks and climb coconut trees with their heels tied together. Novices soon learn that shinning up a forty-foot-tall palm is only half the task; scooting back down requires just as much legwork. Perry remembers the day the University of Hawai‘i football team joined them for practice. “What happened wasn’t what I expected,” he laughs. “We were just loosening up, and they were already shaking, their eyes wide.” 

For twenty-plus years the hālau has been fortunate to call the Lanikūhonua Cultural Institute home. The ten-acre oceanfront property sits between the Four Seasons Resort Ko Olina (with which Perry has partnered to lead educational/cultural hikes and hula boot camps) and Paradise Cove, a public lūa‘u grounds where Perry works as entertainment director, just as Eselu did before him. Hālau members come from the neighboring, predominantly Hawaiian community of Wai‘anae. Membership in Ke Kai o Kahiki is free. “That was O’Brian’s thing,” says Perry. “Money shouldn’t be a reason why you can’t do your culture.”

Perry teaches around sixty students, each of whom volunteers his Saturdays for punishing exercise and esoteric history lessons—not to mention the additional hours spent memorizing chants, preparing costumes and fundraising for the annual pilgrimage to Hilo for Merrie Monarch. “It’s an honor to dance under La‘akea,” says Sunny Leutu, who has been performing with Ke Kai o Kahiki for twelve years, first under Eselu and now under Perry. “He’s always been a great leader, so it was an easy transition.”

In 2013 Perry entered the Merrie Monarch as a kumu for the first time. It was the festival’s fiftieth anniversary, and Ke Kai o Kahiki took third place in the kahiko (ancient) category. They’ve competed every year since, bringing home a fair number of trophies. “To prepare ourselves for Merrie Monarch is a spiritual journey,” Perry tells the men, whose chests heave with exhaustion after the workout. “If you can discipline yourself, you can do anything. It’s easy to let yourself down, so do it for your hula brothers.”

Julian Maeva is among the group of seven that Perry singled out as an example to the others. He’s a Samoan fire-knife dancer who became a “hula brother” in 2013. For years he watched Ke Kai o Kahiki perform on television during the hula festival’s live three-day coverage. “I always admired their work but didn’t understand it,” he says. “I came from fire-knife dancing, which is huge and theatrical. This style of dancing is about precision, strength and nuance.” He appreciates the opportunity to hone his skills and approach dance as a meditation. “Since joining the hālau, my perception has deepened. I can pinpoint movements now that I couldn’t even see before. … Everywhere in the world, you’re pulled in different directions. Here we practice focus. We dive deep. The hālau feels like a family. It asks more of you, makes you ask more of yourself. I really love it.”

Tai Tusi Taufa feels similar gratitude. “Hula gives me balance. Every Saturday morning I know I’m going to go through war with my brothers.” When he joined Ke Kai o Kahiki in 2012, he says, “I was a loudmouth. I would fight. These boys taught me to be humble, to let my actions speak for me. I take the same tools I learn in hula into my life.” 

Unlike the strict days of the past, hula haumāna aren’t expected to sequester themselves. “Now we not only accept families, we involve them,” says Perry. His wife and three children all have roles in the hālau. Maeva’s two-year-old son plays at the edge of the lawn while his father practices. Watching and mimicking kumu Perry, the precocious toddler has already learned to tap out rhythms on the gourd drum.

In 2016 Maeva’s wife, Moana Henriques, approached her husband’s kumu with a request. She knew he didn’t teach women, but would he make an exception? She wanted to dedicate a hula to her father, who had passed. Perry said yes. Not long after, he asked Henriques to help start a wāhine line. She now leads classes for young girls, teens and older women. 

Ke Kai o Kahiki meets and practices at Lanikūhonua Cultural Institute, a beachfront property situated between the Four Seasons Resort Ko Olina and Paradise Cove – a public lū‘au grounds where Perry works as entertainment director.

“I’m blown away whenever La‘akea teaches me things,” says Henriques. “A lot of times when he’s dancing, I’m speechless. It’s the kind of dancing you can only do with practice and proper guidance.” She, in turn, transmits what she learns to her students. “Everything I teach the ladies is from him. … Watching the teen girls, it makes me so proud. The underlying things they learn here—discipline, respect, self-pride—will affect them for the rest of their lives.”

As practice wraps up, the men gather under the shade of coconut trees to learn about the mele (song) they will perform this year at Merrie Monarch. It celebrates the island of Ni‘ihau: the currents that wrap around its coast, the abundant fish that inhabit its reefs and its hardy residents who herd sheep and string shell lei. “Draw inspiration from them, their hard work. Keep that in mind as you dance,” their kumu tells them. The men rehearse one more time, evoking the power of the coursing tide, the constancy required to draw a living from the land. Like many mele, this one ends with “ha‘ina”—let the story be told, let it live on.

Before Eselu passed away he warned Perry, “You have a lot to do. I cannot have you stumble. I cannot have you stop. If you cry when I’m gone, I’m going to come back and slap you on the head.” Perry smiles, remembering. “He had a kolohe [mischievous] sense of humor. He laughed in my face and told me, ‘It took me twenty years to find you. Now your job is to find the next La‘akea.’”HH