There is a common bond among all dancers awarded the Miss Aloha Hula title from 1971 to 2012, and that is a sincere love for hula.
First of all, to be chosen by a kumu hula for the solo competition is in itself an honor. The dancer usually has been with the halau for a number of years and has exhibited a certain mastery of skills as well as humility and character.
She becomes a representative of her halau and her kumu’s style, and is set on a months-long path of hard work and diligence before walking onto the Merrie Monarch stage in Hilo. Preparation might involve intensive research about a mele (song) and rigorous hours of practicing hula and chants in the year leading up to the competition.
Ask any Miss Aloha Hula whether she remembers the day she won the title, and she will likely say, “like it was yesterday.”
Kumu Aloha Dalire, 62, who was the first Miss Aloha Hula (then called Miss Hula), still remembers that day vividly.
It was 1971, the year the solo competition was introduced to the Merrie Monarch Festival, and the participants drew numbers to see in which order they would dance.
She pulled No. 11. Unlike today, there was only one portion: auana, or modern-style, dance.
“I was really nervous,” she said. “There wasn’t a huge audience and it was mostly local people and they were there because they were really interested in hula.”
Her heart was beating hard as she stepped on stage in a black holomuu with aqua lace trim, and pikake flowers and a decorative crown piece made by her mother, Mary Keolalaulani McCabe Wong, in her hair.
She danced to “Ka Makani Ka‘ili Aloha,” which tells a story about how the wind can snatch love away from you.
“I was in shock,” she said of hearing her name announced as the winner.
“I never did expect it because I was very nervous. My mom just kept telling me, ‘All you have to do is get out there and smile,’ and I guess I pulled it off.”
She would relive that moment again as each of her three daughters, Kapua, Kaui and Keola, won the Miss Aloha Hula title in 1991, 1992 and 1999, respectively.
It’s not a beauty pageant, though Miss Aloha Hula candidates must be between the ages of 18 and 25, never married and with no children.
When Dalire won the title, she received a trophy and $150 in cash. Today’s Miss Aloha Hula is awarded a custom-designed bracelet from Royal Hawaiian Heritage jewelry, an ipu heke and about $800. The state Office of Hawaiian Affairs offers a separate Hawaiian Language Award with a gift of $1,000.
But at the core of it all is the hula and the beauty of its poetic expression from within and on the outside, as conveyed to the judges and audience.
FOR KUMU hula Tracie Ka‘onohilani Farias Lopes, her Miss Aloha Hula title in 1994 was completely unexpected.
Late kumu hula Thaddius Wilson and O’Brian Eselu of Na Wai Eha ‘O Puna asked her to vie for the title a second time. In 1992, she was first runner-up and “happy, happy, happy” with her accomplishment, she said.
But Wilson and Eselu felt in their hearts she was meant to be a Miss Aloha Hula.
An overwhelming number of mentors stepped forward to help, she remembers. Renowned kumu hula Pat Namaka Bacon assisted her with her kahiko (ancient-style) performance of “Pu‘uonioni,” which was a hula noho, or sitting hula — a daring move at the time.
Both Aunty Mapuana Yasue and Aunty Florence Koanui, originally from the top-placing Hau‘oli Hula Maids, helped choreograph her auana dance, “Moku o Keawe.”
By then the competition had evolved to include both kahiko and auana performances, with a strong emphasis on Hawaiian language. It was also televised, meaning audiences at home would be watching and critiquing along with those in the stadium.
The performance Lopes gave that night remains a blur for her. She said she had butterflies in her stomach until the moment she stepped on stage and began to dance.
“I decided instead of being caught up with placement (in the results), I was going to go because everyone around me wants me to go,” she said. “I just needed to go and try my best and trust my training.”
Lopes, 41, said she is grateful to have had so many mentors in hula.
TODAY, the bar is set even higher, according to Lopes, who has a student competing this year. The candidate must now be strong not only in Hawaiian language and oli (chant), but stand out in overall choreography and performance with attention paid to every detail.
With the unforgiving clarity of high-definition television, even greater importance has been placed on attire and makeup.
In her day, Farias remembers doing her own makeup.
With the Merrie Monarch competition accessible to fans around the world through live streaming and other online coverage, Miss Aloha Hula has become a global ambassador of hula.
Reigning Miss Aloha Hula Rebecca Lilinoekekapahauomaunakea Sterling, 25, of Halau Mohala ‘Ilima, is amazed at how far and wide her recognition has spread.
For Sterling, the year has been a whirlwind. She traveled to Japan several times, including to the Na Hiwahiwa Festival in Japan, which features Merrie Monarch winners.
She accompanied her kumu hula, Mapuana de Silva, to the Solomon Islands for the Festival of Pacific Arts and has done commercials and television interviews.
“I can’t believe it’s been a year already,” she said.
Sterling continues to dance and will be competing at the festival again this year with her halau. She teaches elementary school part time, and also teaches keiki hula at the halau.
Winning the title, she said, is but the beginning of a journey.
“It doesn’t just end with the title of Miss Aloha Hula,” she said. “That desire to continue to better yourself and strive for more continues. … It was an opportunity to grow in this long journey of learning.”
She said she is humbled to be included in the history of past Miss Aloha Hulas, many of whom she watched with admiration while growing up.
For Sterling, as well as Lopes and Dalire, hula will always be a way of life.
Dalire, today the award-winning kumu hula of Keolalaulani Halau ‘Olapa O Laka and a grandmother of 16, continues to compete at Merrie Monarch every year. This year marks her 40th.
“Hula is in my blood,” she said. “It’s what keeps me alive and keeps me going.”
Lopes is a Hawaiian language teacher at Hawaii Pacific University. She is also the kumu hula, along with her husband, Keawe Lopes, of Ka La ‘Onohi Mai O Ha’eha’e, which is competing at Merrie Monarch for the fifth time in a row this year.
The former Miss Aloha Hulas of the Merrie Monarch Festival recently got together at Moanalua Gardens to practice Uncle George Na‘ope’s favorite song, “Ka Nani A‘o Ka‘u,” which they will perform at Wednesday’s Hoike.
“The day we all got together, I could not only feel the energy but the love that each had in their hearts for hula,” Dalire said. “All of us love and value hula.”
Dressing for kahiko, or ancient-style hula, is done in a set order from head to toe, as a dancer prepares to enter the spiritual realm of hula.
This lei is made of palapalai ferns and red and yellow lehua. The lei po‘o should be worn level, parallel to the floor.
Many halau make their lei the day before a performance out of forest plants, and some even gather the materials themselves.
Skirts are made traditionally of kapa (pounded bark), sometimes ti leaf (at least 100) or more commonly several yards of a natural fabric, fastened at the side with a braided cord, and often decorated with symbolic geometric patterns.
The styles for auana can be formal or casual depending on the mele
The styles for auana can range from muumuu and holoku, formal or casual full-length dresses, to ti-leaf skirts, depending on the mele. Hair is usually swept up, and adorned with flowers.
The spinning gourd rattle is often made of three laamia gourds mounted on a stick, with a cord attached to the middle one. When pulled, the two end gourds, typically filled with alii poe (canna) seeds, spin and create swoosh and whirring sounds.
Wooden rhythm sticks can be fashioned into two of equal length, or a longer one paired with a shorter stick. Made from a hardwood, such as koa or kauila, kala‘au can be tapered on the ends.
Made of two gourds joined together at their necks, with the smaller one on top. They are used by kumu hula to provide rhythmic accompaniment for the chant and dancer. Typically held by one hand that plays the ipu upon the ground creating a downbeat, with the “free” hand playing the upbeat and flourishes.
This small drum made from the shell of a coconut is fastened to the dancer’s thigh during a hula noho (sitting hula). Can also be used by kumu in conjunction with a pahu (drum). Fibrous material, such as ki (ti leaf) or coconut sennit, is braided to create a “ka” to strike the drum.
The treadleboard is a platter-shaped foot board with a cross-piece through which the dancer creates two basic beats – heel and toe. It is made of a hardwood, like the kala‘au, and the two implements together create interesting patterns and counter-rhythms.