It was her moment.
Jasmine Kaleihiwa Dunlap was on fire the second she stepped on stage Thursday night to deliver a chant of praise for Hi‘iaka, the youngest sister of Pele. Her voice was a force to be reckoned with.
Then she embodied Pele as she flowed across the stage, powerful and fluid as lava.
Dunlap, 23, impressed the judges and audience alike with stirring performances telling the legends of Pele, Hi‘iaka and Hopoe, winning the title of Miss Aloha Hula 2015 at the 52nd Merrie Monarch Festival.
"Someone pinch me — am I still dreaming?" Dunlap said Friday as she braided palapalai fern lei with hula sisters in preparation for the group kahiko competition. "It hasn’t really hit me yet. It’s pretty surreal."
They relived the moment, watching a replay of the Miss Aloha Hula competition on KFVE, all while continuing to make their lei at their hotel. "Here we go, here we go, turn up the volume!" she yelled.
"Once I got off the stage with kahiko, I felt really good," she told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "When I left the stage with ‘auana, I definitely felt like I left my entire self on that stage, my heart, everything — and I didn’t have any regrets."
The third-generation hula dancer was pretty much born into Hula Halau ‘o Kamuela, based in both Kalihi and Waimanalo, under the direction of kumu hula Kau‘ionalani Kamana‘o and Kunewa Mook, though she says she officially began dancing at the age of 5.
Mook is her uncle, and Sam Kamuela Nae‘ole, the late founder of the halau, was her great-uncle.
Her greatest influences in hula and in life, she said, are her family — a family of hula dancers and musicians. She also counts her hula sisters as extended family.
"Family is definitely my biggest inspiration for everything that I do," she said. "My hula sisters I consider family because we grow together in this journey that we take, however long we’ve been practicing and rehearsing. The bond is unbreakable."
Dunlap received the highest score of 1,113 points from judges Thursday night and also captured the Hawaiian Language Award. It was her second time competing, and the second time was the charm. In 2013 Dunlap was second runner-up.
"Both experiences were so different," Dunlap said. "This year I decided to do this not for myself, but more for the ones that I love, the ones that are always there for me, that always believe in me and push me."
Her hula sisters helped make the ti leaf skirt she wore for the kahiko. "That also empowered me," she said. "They were putting all their mana into my skirt." Her head and neck were adorned with lei of vibrant, red ohia lehua.
The power of Pele and the recent, active lava flow may all have contributed to the magic of the performance.
Kumu Kamana‘o was inspired to choose mele from Hawaii island this year by his friend Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole. Dunlap visited all the significant places in her mele, including Halemaumau Crater, Haena and Nanahuki.
"We went and visited Halemaumau Crater, and I got to dance my kahiko over there and I really felt her (Pele’s) presence in the wind, the rain, the sun, all the elements that were happening," she said. "I felt her with me while I was dancing."
While dancing Thursday night, she got lost in the mele.
"I felt like everything around me kind of disappeared, and I was at these places, dancing," she said. "I truly believed it."
Her ‘auana, "Hopoe," which tells of Pele’s destruction of Hi‘iaka’s best friend and lehua grove, was just as stunning. She expressed her interpretation of Hopoe’s sorrow, with fingers fluttering down like tears, entering her heart. The captivating performance won a standing ovation.
When not dancing, which is year-round, Dunlap plays ukulele and sings as part of the Kaiona Duo with her older brother, Paul.
Dunlap says she is looking forward to her new journey as Miss Aloha Hula, and that hula is a lifelong endeavor, always with more to learn.
Eleven dancers vied for the Miss Aloha Hula title, one fewer than originally listed in the program. Soloist Tifeni Gene Ann Kanoe Elvenia of Ka Leo o Laka i ka Hikina o ka La had to pull out at the last minute, according to festival President Luana Kawelu.
The four runners-up were all close in scores.
In second place was Abby Claire Hali‘ahauola Resulta of Halau Hi‘iakainamakalehua with 1,085 points; finishing third was Noelani Dudoit of Ka La ‘Onohi Mai o Ha‘eha‘e with 1,080 points. In fourth place was Jayna Marie Kau‘iokalanimalie Shaffer of Halau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leina‘ala with 1,074 points. In fifth was ‘Anela U‘ilani Ruth Fusano Tanigawa of Halau Na Lei Kaumaka o Uka, with 1,065 points.
The Merrie Monarch Festival continues with the group ‘auana hula competition Saturday night, followed by the announcement of winners and the awards presentation. For more stories, photos and daily blog updates, visit merriemonarch.star advertiser.com.