Standing in a tight circle, their arms around each other and pa‘u skirts forming a rainbow of colors, the ladies of the Honolulu-based halau Na Pualei o Likolehua offered a pule, or prayer, on a recent Sunday as they prepared for the 53rd Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo.
They prayed for love, knowledge and unity, then lined up on the floor of the Saint Louis School gym to rehearse for the hula festival, which begins Thursday with the Miss Aloha Hula competition, followed by group kahiko (ancient-style hula) on Friday and group auana (modern style) on Saturday.
Twenty-nine groups will compete this year, representing Oahu, Molokai, Maui, Kauai, Hawaii island and California. While halau are focused on competing at the prestigious competition, Na Pualei o Likolehua has a more personal focus.
MERRIE MONARCH FESTIVAL EVENTS
>> Today, 9 a.m.: Hoolaulea with performances by local halau. Free. Afook Chinen Civic Auditorium, 323 Manono St.
>> 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday: Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair, Afook Chinen Civic Auditorium
>> 6 p.m. Wednesday: Hoike, an exhibition of hula and folk dance from around the Pacific. Free. No tickets required. Edith Kanaka’ole Multi-Purpose Stadium, 350 Kalanikoa St.
>> 6 p.m. Thursday: Miss Aloha Hula competition. Edith Kanaka’ole Multi-Purpose Stadium.
>> 6 p.m. Friday: Group hula kahiko. Edith Kanaka’ole Multi-Purpose Stadium.
>> 10:30 a.m. Saturday: Merrie Monarch Royal Parade, begins and ends at Pauahi Street in downtown Hilo.
>> 6 p.m. Saturday: Group hula auana, followed by award presentations. Edith Kanaka’ole Multi-Purpose Stadium.
For more details, visit merriemonarch.com.
Niuli‘i Heine, the kumu hula who leads the halau, said this year’s performance is more about honoring the legacy of her late mother — their beloved kumu hula Leina‘ala Kalama Heine — than it is about winning. It was what the well-respected kumu and figure of the Hawaiian renaissance movement would have wished, Niuli‘i Heine said. And dancing will help them heal.
“For each and every one of us that is out there on the floor, even if you’re not on the floor, hula will heal,” Heine said. “And in each and every one of us, it has.”
Leina‘ala Kalama Heine died Sept. 9 at the age of 75. She had taught hula to generations of dancers and performed solo with the Brothers Cazimero for more than 30 years, earning the unofficial title of “the third brother.” She established Na Pualei o Likolehua in 1976 as a nonprofit group to cultivate young women as leaders, whether it be in hula, social work, politics or education.
In taking over for her mother, the 51-year-old Niuli‘i Heine knows she has big shoes to fill, but has been preparing all her life for this moment.
Having danced hula since the age of 5, she was with her mother when the halau went to the Merrie Monarch in 1977 and placed first in the women’s kahiko division. She graduated as a kumu hula in 2009 — along with 12 other dancers, many of whom are still with the halau — and was always by her mother’s side.
She has taken over the reins of the halau and is now the keeper of the ipu heke, or double gourd drum, that was given to her mother by master craftsman Calvin Hoe because he felt the elder kumu had the talent to play it.
Now she is the one playing it, guiding the dancers’ feet.
The halau competed at Merrie Monarch for its 30th anniversary in 2006 and again in 2010. This year marks the halau’s 40th anniversary.
For their kahiko the halau’s dancers will perform “Haumea,” a piece that honors the Hawaiian goddess of fertility from the Kumulipo, or Hawaiian creation chant. The performance will also honor the legacy of Leina‘ala Heine.
“It is so appropriate because it is everything that she embodies and has taught us, prepared us and trained us for,” Niuli‘i Heine said.
An oli, or chant, accompanying the dance was composed by one of Leina‘ala Heine’s graduates, Noelani Iokepa-Guerrero, for the late kumu. It tells of her birth of generations of dancers, and her enduring love for hula and Hawaii.
For the auana competition the halau will perform “Kimo Hula,” a classic standard number that Leina‘ala Heine choreographed during the height of her creativity in the 1970s. Composer Helen Desha Beamer wrote the song to honor her friend James Kimo Henderson, paying tribute to the lovely gatherings at his home in Piihonua, above Hilo.
It references the spirit of similar get-togethers Heine shared with singer Robert Cazimero and kumu Wayne Chang at the Mahi Beamer residence at Kawela Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, sharing music and laughter. Niuli‘i Heine remembers those days well, even though she was only 8.
These two mele had already been selected by Leina‘ala Heine at the time she suffered the heart attack, in late July, that led to her death two months later. The halau had hoped she would recover, and rehearsals were put on hold. After Heine’s memorial service at Magic Island in October, all four of her children — Niuli‘i, Kalama, Auli‘i and Heali‘i — felt going forward at Merrie Monarch to honor her was the right decision.
Several family members will be dancing.
KFVE COVERAGE OF THE FESTIVAL
>> Today, 7-9 p.m., Best of Merrie Monarch 2014/2015
>> Wednesday, 8-9 p.m., Backstage at Merrie Monarch
>> Thursday, 6 p.m.-midnight, Miss Aloha Hula Competition
>> Friday, 6 p.m.-12:30 a.m., Kahiko Competition
>> Saturday, 6 p.m.-1 a.m., Auana Competition and Awards
Note: Competitions retelecast the following day starting at 11 a.m.
Heine’s second-eldest daughter, Auli‘i Hirahara, 46, will dance with her daughter, Maluhia, 13. Her granddaughter, Ke‘ala Souza, will dance as well. Heine’s youngest daughter, Heali‘i, rejoined the halau and will be in the lineup, along with grandniece Ko‘ala Matsuoka.
Hirahara recalls her mother’s words after they founded a nonprofit organization in 2005, Papaku no Kameha‘ikana, that brought the art of oli to men in local prisons: “Hula is the avenue to giving back, to healing.” The nonprofit continues to encourage families to live and practice Hawaiian cultural traditions.
There are 35 dancers in the halau, ranging in age from 13 to 55. One dancer, Nani Dudoit, 55, was part of the halau when it was founded in 1976. There are also two other sets of mothers and daughters: Patricia Lei Anderson and her daughter, Kamehana Ruiz; and Kehau Abad and her daughter, Kamalu Abad.
Since about November the dancers have practiced several hours on Sundays and Mondays.
Leina‘ala Heine graduated as a kumu hula from the distinguished late kumu Maiki Aiu Lake, along with Robert Cazimero. She also studied with Joseph Kaha‘ulelio, Vicky I‘i Rodrigues, Ruby Ahakuelo, Puanani Alama and Leilani Alama.
Heali‘i Heine, 45, said her mother was meticulous in all that she did, from costuming to makeup and choreography, including the halau’s unique entrance and exit. While she is happy to celebrate her legacy, she also feels the weight of kuleana, or responsibility.
“A lot of it, too, is dancing the number without crying, to get through it with gratitude for what she has done,” she said.
Heali‘i Heine recalls the magical synergy that occurred whenever her mother danced with the Brothers Cazimero.
“Every time she would dance, it was about allowing the music to move her, and her moving the musicians,” she said. “There was always that synergy, and that was what she was teaching the halau.”
Known as Auntie ‘Ala to many, Leina‘ala Heine was never shy about getting up to dance impromptu. She had a generosity of spirit that filled the room.
“My mom was all about sharing,” said Niuli‘i Heine. “Sharing her knowledge, sharing her hula, sharing whatever she had. The love that she could give was infinite, and that’s why people loved her. She had a bright light that shined, and that’s what this is all about.”