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Miss Aloha Hula devotes life to dance

By Nina Wu

LAST UPDATED: 7:13 p.m. HST, Apr 29, 2015

HILO » For Rebecca Lilinoekekapahauomaunakea Sterling of Halau Mohala ‘Ilima, the path to the Miss Aloha Hula title was one of hard work and dedication as well as love for the dance, language and culture of Hawaii.

Sterling, 24, of Kailua, was chosen Miss Aloha Hula on Thursday at the 49th annual Merrie Monarch Festival.

The Kamehameha Schools graduate, known to most friends and family as Lilinoe, has been dancing with kumu hula Mapuana de Silva's Halau Mohala ‘Ilima in Lanikai since the age of 4.

Sterling recalled that as a child there were times she wanted to quit and focus on sports or other things, but she thanks her mother for keeping her going in hula — a choice that would later become her own.

She spent more than a year preparing for the Miss Aloha Hula competition, and even took time off as a Hawaiian studies major at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

"It's definitely been a journey," she said. "All kinds of different things happen to you as you grow up and hula, I think, is one of the things that has grounded me and kept me in a good mindset."

Sterling says hula will always be a part of her life because of its intrinsic rewards, be it a deeper understanding of her own culture or a strong bond with others in the halau.

"There's no way I could have gotten to the place I did without my hula sisters," she said.

On Thursday evening, Sterling delivered a strong and solid performance of her kahiko (ancient-style hula), "He Inoa No Kaleimakali‘i," a mele (song) honoring Kaleimakali‘i, the 19th-century ancestor of the last Hawaiian families to live at Kalia, Waikiki.

It held special meaning for her because she was dancing a hula about her own ancestors and their steadfast resolve resisting development on their beloved coastline. She researched her own genealogy for the mele, which was composed by de Silva's husband, Kihei de Silva.

For her auana (modern, flowing hula), she offered a dignified, elegant performance of "He Inoa No Na Keiki O Ka Bana Lahui," best known today as "Kaulana Na Pua," a song protesting the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani.

The intentions behind presenting that hula, she said, were to remind others of the importance of the Hawaiian identity and to instill pride in being Hawaiian.

"It's important for us to remember that our kupuna struggled a lot and fought for things that come so easy for us right now," she said.

The dance belonged to a repertoire from de Silva's kumu hula, Aunty Maiki Aiu Lake, and was taught to the halau by Kealoha Wong. De Silva felt Sterling was the right dancer to share the rarely performed mele at Merrie Monarch.

Ellen Prendergast, the queen's friend, composed the song. It just so happened that Prendergast's birthday fell on the day that Sterling performed it.

De Silva described Sterling's performances at the competition afterward as "pono," saying it was done properly and met a certain level of satisfaction.

"In her presentations, she was very much the messenger of the time period and family members they represent," de Silva said. "As a messenger, she was connected to all the people."

Since she started dancing hula, Sterling was a natural and loved it, said her mother, Paula Sterling. Younger daughter Kapuahealani enrolled in the halau as well.

Paula Sterling and her husband, Wayne Ho‘olae Sterling, are in Hilo for the weekend to support their daughters in the competition. She described Thursday night's victory as "absolutely incredible."

"I was just so happy for her, after seeing her dedication over the years," said Paula Sterling. "It was a surprise for the family. I know the kupuna would have been proud."

The competition concludes this evening with group auana, followed by award presentations.

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