In hula kahiko (ancient-style hula), there is a protocol for how the dance is presented to an audience.
Typically, the kumu hula will oli (chant) to announce the entrance of his or her halau. Then the halau members, depending on its traditions, make their entrance and also oli.
"It can be an oli for your own halau, for the place, it could be genealogy, greeting the audience or alii," said kumu hula Vicky Holt Takamine. "There are many functions of the oli."
The origins of the oli come from the legend of Pele’s younger sister, Hiiaka, who journeyed from the Big Island to Kauai to fetch Pele’s lover, Lohiau. During her journey, Hiiaka would chant to the deities at every island and point of entry, waiting for permission to enter.
The entering and exiting oli are required by Miss Aloha Hula candidates, who will be competing tonight at the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, but not for the halau in group kahiko and auana competitions on Friday and Saturday nights, respectively.
"It’s customary to announce yourself in some way or fashion," she said.
Once the halau is on stage, there is typically a kai < entrance < in which dancers will enter single file and then get in formation on stage. Takamine describes this as "like the rays of a rising sun" that come up the ramp and pour out on the stage.
Usually, the sun rises from the east and sets in the west, so the dancers, too, travel from the east to the west side of the stage.
Once on stage, it’s time to perform the mele.
"The kai is so critical to the performance, to set up and prepare the audience," Takamine said. "Then comes the presentation of the mele, which is the heart of the performance. It’s the foundation for their whole presentation. For me, it’s a look into their school of dance, training and philosophy."
Takamine said besides technical skill, judges are looking at whether the dancers have an understanding of the mele and its subtleties.
"You expect every group that performs at Merrie Monarch is going to be excellent," she said. "They’ve prepared for months, and they’ve worked on their costumes for months. We’re looking for that exemplary group < the one that goes above and beyond."
Judges are also looking at how in tune with one another the dancers are on stage, how unified they are, dancing as one. What the group brings to the stage through their hula will reflect both personal and collective experiences.
"Those things are so hard to teach," she said.
Being a judge is very hard, when so many halau are excellent, Takamine said.
"It’s not just what appears on stage, but all the work that goes on beforehand," she said.
This may include the months of preparation and a deepening of knowledge of a mele that involves visiting the islands mentioned in person or meeting the composers.
After the performance of the mele, hula dancers also make an exit < or hoi < which is critical because it's the last impression left for the audience and judges.
"It needs to be as crisp and clean as your first step on stage," Takamine said.
For the Miss Aloha Hula competition, the hoi is required, but not for the group halau.
The chanters and musicians are all an integral part of the number as well, along with the costumes, and are also accounted for in the score.
"Kumu Hula Roots and Branches" by Ishmael W. Stagner, just released by Island Heritage.
"Unwritten Literature of Hawaii" by Nathaniel Emerson
"Hula Historical Perspectives" by Dorothy Barrere, Mary Kawena Pukui and Marion Kelly