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Keep your eyes on the hair

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If your mane has veered out of control, good luck finding your favorite stylist this week. Many Oahu stylists are on Hawaii island, helping halau prepare for the Merrie Monarch Festival stage.

It’s a grueling task for the stylists, who are required to prepare up to 40 men and women for their weekend performances. In a close competition, winning or losing isn’t restricted to the performance and can come down to grooming and adornment issues, such as point deductions for any flowers falling from a dancer’s head during the dance.

As hairstylist Hanalei Ramirez puts it, “After a year of hard work and rehearsal, I don’t want them to lose because of me.”

In a demonstration of styles for our photographer, he has a model go through the “ka ma­kani” hula motion of circling her arms around her head to represent the wind, making sure the flowers are clear of the movement.


“Some halau want to use the bird of paradise, but when they turn, the flowers fall out,” Ramirez said.

By the time he is done, a dancer’s up-do can contain up to a pound of metal hairpins and enough hair spray to give it the feel of plastic. “We shellac it in place so it does not move,” he said.

But the public would be hard pressed to see any of the materials holding the ‘dos in place, from nets to the glint of pins, which would be a distraction during the performance. “A good stylist can hide it all,” he said.

Ramirez, of Salon 808, has been prepping halau for performances at the Merrie Monarch Festival for more than 30 years, starting at a time before wide television and Internet coverage, when uniformity of appearance wasn’t as crucial as it is today and stylists were still setting new competition standards.

“Now, because of TV, everything has to be perfect — the makeup, the clothes, the hair,” he said, but in the early ’80s “we’d just show up and it was chaos. No one planned anything. We got smarter as time went on.”

To this day there are kumu hula who still don’t know how close he has come to disaster, he said, citing one particular trip when one of his styling assistants borrowed the salon’s rental car — filled with all their tools and supplies — for a drive to visit her grandmother before the competition.

“She got a flat tire and no one could reach her. She had no cellphone, so couldn’t get in touch with anyone to get help on the road. We had to run to the nearest 5-and-10-cent store and bought up everything we could, and I told my staff to buy suitcases so we would look professional and not walk in carrying plastic bags. Since then I don’t allow anyone to do any personal business until after the competition.”

This year Ramirez will be working with Oahu’s Halau Hula ka Lehua Tuahine, under the direction of kumu hula Ka‘ili­hiwa Vaughn-Darval, daughter of musician Palani Vaughan and a 1995 Miss Aloha Hula winner.

Ramirez, who is part Hawaiian, came to the competition through his knowledge of pa‘u hairstyles, which had to withstand the rigor of riders bouncing up and down on horseback.

He starts working with kumu hula about two months in advance, learning about the music, dress style, color and floral choices, as well as the kumu’s vision for the dancers’ hair, which he says doesn’t vary much. For the kahiko, or ancient, dance, hair is generally worn down, long and full as a result of crimping from braiding, followed by teasing the locks and setting them in place. In past years, when dealing with up to 16 dancers, he braided every dancer’s hair in advance, but today saves time by having the dancers braid it themselves.

Not every girl has long hair, so Ramirez says his crew of four or five “brings extra hair, shh!”

Auana, or modern, styles can range from having hair worn down or swept up in a sleek chignon or Kalakaua-era Gibson girl bouffant.

He looks at each of the dancers again about two weeks ahead of the competition, giving his recommendations for color fixes, and after that, he said, “nothing changes, and there’s absolutely no cutting of bangs.”

The men take less work than the women.

On the day of the group competitions, he’ll generally start working on hair at about 1 to 2 p.m., allowing about four or five hours before the start of the competition, trusting the halau to return from foraging expeditions with specified flowers, properly wrapped with florists’ tape.

“If it’s not done correctly, it’s extra work for us,” he said. Adding to the stress, he never knows whether the halau will be late coming back from the forests.

Despite his years of experience, there is always something new to learn. When the Transportation Security Administration banned liquids on flights, he found himself without some necessary sprays and gels, and once again found himself searching Hilo for hair products.

“As far as the next generation of stylists, they have to learn about dealing with high-definition television, which highlights flaws and blemishes, requiring better foundations and amping up the use of color cosmetics.”

Glenn Kelena Vasconcellos of Halau o ke Anue­nue has the advantage of being both kumu and hairstylist, working out of Shearz Hilo. Demands from regular customers prevent him from taking the week off, but he’ll work half-days Wednesday and Friday, taking only Thursday and Saturday off. He needs the time, considering he’ll start Saturday at 5 a.m., dressing the hair for one of the Merrie Monarch pa‘u parade units, and moving on to the royal court’s hair at 7 a.m. before starting on his own halau at 10 a.m.

He’ll be working on 22 girls for the kahiko competition and 19 for the auana. “I have friends who help me with the halau, but I do all the finishing work. I know the look I want, and by doing the work myself, I don’t have to explain it to anyone. If I explain and they don’t do it right, I get fussy, and you don’t want to see me in a mood that day. So I do it myself.”

In addition to the advantage of having full control over the precision of the look, he says he simply enjoys creating period hair. “I don’t get to do this kind of hair every day,” adding that many stylists aren’t trained in up-dos. “It’s not taught in beauty school because it’s not something that’s in style. When they do up-dos, it’s more of a messy look that’s not (Merrie Monarch) era-appropriate.”

Although Vasconcellos went to beauty school, he started his training as a youngster, saying, “People wore theirs up a lot, like my mom and aunties. They always wore their hair up, and I helped them do that.”

Lately, Vasconcellos, who’s 65, has been conversing with peers who acknowledge they’re all getting older and should be thinking about positioning the next generation to take over.

“This year someone will be shadowing me because he may have to take over one day, but as long as I’m able to do it, I will.”

Ramirez feels the same way. Although he says he considers calling it quits every year, he changes his mind when the halau he’s worked with is competing.

“When all the dancers are on stage, they look so beautiful.”

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