HILO >> When Miss Aloha Hula Kayli Ka‘iulani Carr stepped on stage at the Merrie Monarch competition for her auana (modern-style) performance, it was as if she became one with the emotions of her love song.
She performed “Ka Makani Ka‘ili Aloha,” a mele that tells the story of desire, longing and endless devotion through the metaphor of a special wind sent to recapture the heart of one’s estranged lover. She was fluid and expressive, moving the audience to resounding applause at Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium on Thursday night.
“I was thinking about my mom when I was dancing,” said Carr afterward.
It turns out that Carr’s mother, Kalani Kama-Carr, had, by coincidence, danced the same song for her husband on their wedding day. Kama-Carr was in the audience, nervous as she watched her daughter’s performance.
After awards were announced, Kama-Carr said she was “overjoyed.” She added, “Speechless. Just loving every moment of what happened.”
Carr credits her mother, also a hula dancer, for giving her encouragement and support. She started dancing at age 5, and at about 10 years old began aspiring to hold the title of Miss Aloha Hula.
That childhood dream turned into reality Thursday night as Carr, of Halau Hi‘iakainamakalehua, received the highest score from judges, winning the title of Miss Aloha Hula at the 53rd annual Merrie Monarch Festival.
With a score of 1,134, she gained an 11-point lead over first runner-up Brylyn Noelani Aiwohi of Halau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leina‘ala, who won the Hawaiian Language Award.
Carr, 25, is a Kamehameha Schools graduate who grew up in Makaha and works as a professional dancer at Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park.
As a child, Carr danced with kumu Ku‘uipo Avilla in Nanakuli. After high school she danced with kumu Kaleo Trinidad. She joined Halau Hi‘iakainamakalehua two years ago, after an introduction from a close friend. She had watched them compete at their first Merrie Monarch three years ago.
“It felt awesome, wonderful,” Carr said after winning. “I really just tried to be in the moment. I mean, it’s only 14 minutes and you work so hard. You work for four months to get to this point. I didn’t want it to pass me by too quickly.”
Her kumu, Robert Ke‘ano Ka‘upu IV and Lono Padilla said they knew she was the one because of her willingness to work hard. They chose mele that they felt would challenge her, and she took them on. She practiced for hours nearly every day leading up to the competition.
“I’m so proud but very, very humble,” said Ka‘upu. “Her hard work paid off. I’m shocked. We hoped but we never expected it.”
“You’re always hopeful,” said Padilla. “She’s a completely different dancer and haumana (student) and person than she was last year.”
For her kahiko number, Carr performed a piece celebrating Keopuolani, the highest-ranking wife of King Kamehameha I and mother to Liholiho. She opened with a kepakepa-style chant, which is delivered in a rapid, conversational style.
“It’s really fast and really long, and you have to get a lot of words in at one time; then comes the challenge of having emotion with those words,” she said. “Not just speaking fast, but speaking with a purpose.”
She was full of confidence in her delivery of the genealogy, never missing a word or beat. Carr said her knack for memorizing movie lines and rap lyrics helped, along with an understanding of the words.
Twelve dancers vied for the Miss Aloha Hula title. Last year’s Miss Aloha Hula, Jasmine Kaleihiwa Dunlap of Hula Halau ‘o Kamuela, bid aloha with a lovely performance that combined singing and dancing. She shared the stage with her kumu and fellow Miss Aloha Hula sisters, and concluded with a repeat of her winning auana.
When asked what she would share with the world about hula, Carr said, “That hula is alive, and the basis of hula is olelo (language), so that’s why it’s important to perpetuate Hawaiian language. That’s how we tell our stories, and that’s how they’re passed down from generation to generation. And eventually, when we leave, that’s the only thing people will have.”
The Merrie Monarch Festival concludes with the group auana hula competition tonight, followed by the announcement of winners and awards.