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Hula’s healing power

Lani Girl Kaleiki-AhLo has come from ‘below rock-bottom’ to lead the halau co-founded by her mother at the world’s top hula competition

LAST UPDATED: 11:35 a.m. HST, Feb 12, 2014

For kumu hula Lani Girl Kaleiki-AhLo, participating in this year’s Merrie Monarch Festival is a homecoming after a 29-year hiatus.

She last competed, as a dancer, in 1983, and attended the Hilo festival the following year to participate in a ceremony honoring her mother, kumu hula Louise Kahilio‘kalani Kaleiki, who helped found Merrie Monarch as it’s known today.

Four years ago, while watching the event from the stands, Kaleiki-AhLo remarked how hula was so different from the old days, and a friend asked, “Well, when are you going back?”

Since then she has been preparing her ‘Ilima Hula Studio for the festival. A total of 12 ladies, ages 17 to 38, will present the unique, old-style hula representative of the halau.

“When we hit that stage everyone will know ‘Ilima’s still alive,” she said.

As the 49th annual Merrie Monarch Festival approaches, halau across the isles are finalizing preparations.

The costumes and adornments have been selected, oli (chants) memorized by heart, and hula dancers have been practicing in school cafeterias, gymnasiums and studios.

Some have done extensive research on the history and meaning of their songs; some have even gone on trips to learn more about the places they are dancing about. Yet others have experienced spiritual journeys in preparation for the festival.

There are 12 candidates for Thursday’s Miss Aloha Hula competition, while 23 halau will compete in the hula kahiko (ancient) and auana (modern) divisions Friday and Saturday. The participants include groups from Las Vegas, Nevada and California.

With the hula community still reeling from the death of kumu hula O’Brian Eselu, 56, at his Halawa home Tuesday, his contributions will no doubt be recognized in Hilo. His halau, Ke Kai O Kahiki, swept the overall kane (men’s) division in the last three competitions and was named the festival’s overall winner in 2009 and 2010.

Though Eselu was not going to compete this year, his halau was planning for the festival’s 50th anniversary celebration next year.

The audience also will be watching to see what kumu hula Mark Keali‘i Ho‘omalu will present this year with his Academy of Hawaiian Arts. Ho‘omalu, who is back after a few years’ hiatus, has been known to push traditional boundaries with his innovative chants and choreography.

Kaleiki-AhLo’s bumpy road back to the world’s premier hula event came after a battle with alcohol and drug addiction, including cocaine, in the late ’90s. She spent 40 months in federal prison on the mainland for drug-dealing and bank robbery.

It was a wake-up call.

“I was below rock bottom, in the most horrible part of the soil,” she said. “I was in a cocoon in prison.”

Kaleiki-AhLo remembers going to the prison chapel one day and crying for two hours. That was when she realized she had to change. She said she now puts God at the center of her life.

“I came out and had a totally different outlook on life — one of joy and peace, and the word ‘freedom’ had a whole new meaning for me,” she said.

Back on Oahu in 1999, Kaleiki-AhLo did not return to hula full time right away, working as a city bus driver for 11 years to support her family as well as doing some missionary work. She had abandoned hula before going to prison, but came out with a newfound love for it and considers it part of her healing.

She decided to leave her job in 2010 to take up the reins of ‘Ilima Hula Studio, founded in 1957 by her mother and Dottie Ortiz on the lanai of the family home in Papakolea.

Kaleiki-AhLo, 50, said she is in a good place in her life right now.

She also has halau in Maryland, Colorado and Japan, and is ready to make her comeback on the Merrie Monarch stage.

“Hula’s always been in my blood,” she said. “It’s in my DNA.”

Merrie Monarch audience members can expect to see Kaleiki-AhLo’s halau perform what she describes as “old-style kahiko where you don’t smile.”

“It’s very bombastic,” she said.

It’s the style taught to her mother by Uncle Henry Mo‘ikeha O’ Tahiti Pa and Uncle George Naope.

For the auana number, the dancers will be dressed in traditional gowns. She describes the studio’s auana style as “very flip, soft and elegant.”

“Our hands are very soft,” she said. “We’re very expressive from head to toe — and elegant.”





This is the first of three stories providing a glimpse into the lives of three kumu hula and their halau as they prepare for the 49th annual Merrie Monarch Festival.

» Today: Lani Girl Kaleiki-AhLo of ‘Ilima Hula Studio
» Monday: Kapua Dalire-Moe of Ka Liko Pua O Kalaniakea
» Tuesday: Manu‘aikohana Boyd of Halau o ke ‘A‘ali‘i Ku Makani


The 49th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival:

» Where: Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium, Hilo
» Thursday: Miss Aloha Hula, 6p.m.
» Friday: Group hula kahiko, 6p.m.
» Saturday: Group hula auana, 6 p.m.


Complete schedule at

» Today: Ho‘olaule‘a, 9 a.m.
» Wednesday: Ho‘ike, 6 p.m.
» Wednesday through Saturday: Hawaiian arts and crafts fair


See our special Merrie Monarch section at

» Festival updates by staff writer Nina Wu
» Photo galleries by staff photographer Dennis Oda
» Daily posts on Wanda Adams’ Merrie Monarch blog starting Monday
» A list of halau and kumu hula


Watch live broadcasts of the Merrie Monarch Festival at 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday on KFVE The Home Team, with live streaming at

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