Hawaiian music was playing on the television when Theresa Ka‘uhionamauna Ramento Tehiva and her daughter visited her mother’s hospital room the night before she died of pancreatic cancer last year.
Months earlier, while battling her illness, kumu hula Denise Ka‘uhionamauna Ramento had brought her Halau Hula O Ka‘uhionamauna to its first-ever Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, where her dancers impressed with a fifth-place finish in the auana, or modern style, hula.
“One of her favorite songs came on, ‘Pua Ilima,’ which was played during the entrance and exit for our performance last year, and I said, ‘Mommy, you want me to dance for you?’ and she gave me the nod,” recalled Tehiva, 39.
As she danced, Tehiva felt the bond between herself, her mother and her daughter, Hakaheirangi, 13, who will perform with the halau in her first Merrie Monarch this week. For their hula auana, the Waipahu halau will dance to Kuana Torres Kahele’s “Waipi‘o Paeaea,” a tribute to Hawaii island’s Waipio Valley, Ramento’s ancestral land.
Sunday through Saturday in Hilo
>> Ho‘olaule‘a with dancing by local halau, 9 a.m. Sunday at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.
>> Hawaiian Arts Fair, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.
>> Free Ho‘ike performances from around the Pacific, 6 p.m. Wednesday at Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium.
>> Miss Aloha Hula competition, 6 p.m. Thursday at Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium.
>> Group hula kahiko (ancient style), 6 p.m. Friday at Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium.
>> Merrie Monarch Royal Parade, 10:30 a.m. Saturday, begins and ends at Pauahi Street.
>> Group hula auana (modern style) and awards, 6 p.m. Saturday at Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium.
(Note: Tickets for all three nights of hula competition are sold out.)
WATCH ON KFVE
>> “Best of Merrie Monarch 2016/2017,” 7 p.m. Sunday
>> “Merrie Monarch Backstage,” 8 p.m. Wednesday
>> Live coverage of Miss Aloha Hula, kahiko and auana competitions starts at 6 p.m., with encore broadcasts at 11 a.m. the next day.
>> “Best of the Merrie Monarch Festival,” 7 p.m. April 15 and 5 p.m. April 21.
>> Live streaming at k5thehometeam.com.
“That was what my mom wanted,” Tehiva said. “We found that this mele that she chose has brought out the beautiful side of mourning, which can be such a sad time.”
IN THE MORE than half century since the annual Merrie Monarch hula competition was launched, a number of kumu hula whose elite dancers have illuminated its stage have died or retired, entrusting the next generation to navigate the future of their halau.
But being a kumu hula — a close career analogy might be a concert pianist, teacher, choreographer and conductor rolled into one — takes such hard work and devotion that one can understand why a parent wouldn’t want a child to do it out of anything but love.
At the same time, there are family, community and the future to consider.
When Ramento died at age 64, there was never any doubt as to where her daughter’s heart lay.
“I’ve been dancing hula since the age of 7 and it’s raptured my life,” Tehiva said.
Her mother trained and uniki’ed (graduated) with kumu hula Luka and Louise Kaleiki at ‘Ilima Hula Studio, dancing in Merrie Monarch’s first Miss Aloha Hula solo competition in 1971. Ramento is commemorated in this year’s festival program with a photo of her as a very young, smiling dancer with delicate features and plumeria in her hair.
“She was so, so special,” said festival president Luana Kawelu, speaking by phone from her Hilo office near the Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium where the annual hula competition is held. For Ramento’s halau to have scored so well in its first year at the competition, and during her illness, was a tribute to her talent, dedication and strength, which is now being carried forward by her daughter, Kawelu said.
“To be raised in a family of hula, it is tradition that the offspring does continue and that’s what (the kumu) hope for. But they also give us options,” Tehiva said in a phone interview, noting that her mother also sent her to ballet and tap dancing lessons.
“She didn’t want to just give it to us to keep it in the family,” she said of herself and her five brothers, two of whom teach Tahitian dance, as their mother also did.
“My mom’s true legacy is the importance of family,” Tehiva said. “She was everybody’s auntie, everybody’s mom.”
KUMU HULA Mapuana de Silva’s Halau Mohala ‘Ilima will also be in Hilo this week, making its 40th consecutive appearance in the prestigious competition. There are hints of change here as well.
Renowned for her impeccable adherence to tradition, de Silva, 69, is considering the forms her own legacy may take. Asked how she sees the future of her halau evolving, de Silva replied, “I don’t,” during an interview last month at her Kailua hula studio, where daylight fell through a row of windows and brought out the striking clarity of her brown eyes.
“It’s not for me to say.”
She and her husband, Kihei de Silva, have two daughters, Kahikina and Kapalai‘ula de Silva, both kumu hula who assist her at Halau Mohala ‘Ilima, where she teaches 12 classes for about 250 child and adult students a week. The halau will dance in the kahiko and auana competitions at Merrie Monarch, where it has a stellar record, winning its most recent first place for wahine overall in 2013.
“My daughters will have lots of different choices when I’m not here anymore. If they decide not to continue my halau as an institution, that’s fine with me,” she said, adding that her legacy will continue in their teaching and their lives.
“I tell my students that everything they say and do in their entire lives is judged by these ladies,” she said, pointing to a wall displaying portraits of her teachers: Mary Kawena Pukui, Pat Namaka Bacon, Lokalia Montgomery, Sally Wood Naluai, Lani Kalama and Maiki Aiu Lake.
For their hula kahiko at Merrie Monarch, Halau Mohala ‘Ilima will perform Kawena Pukui’s “Poli‘ahu.”
“Their job is to keep these ladies happy,” said de Silva of her students, all of whom she considers as her children. She teaches them, she said, to honor their kupuna in everything they do.
AT DE SILVA’s November benefit performance at the Hawaii Theatre, the theme was “Kapu Na Mauna,” the mountains are sacred. Images of soaring iwa birds were projected on a blue screen behind a line of Halau Mohala ‘Ilima olapa (dancers) performing her signature precise, unaffected yet sweeping choreography in simple, flowing dresses.
Later, they appeared in severe black shirts — and, for the first time ever onstage, pants — and performed a new hula to a resistance chant written during the late 19th century in protest against the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.
Her halau’s mission includes perpetuating and protecting Hawaiian culture, health and the environment, de Silva said.
At Merrie Monarch, volunteers Tammy and Danny Smith prepare the halau’s food; in the past three years, they have guided the group’s switch to a healthy Hawaiian diet based on poi, uala (sweet potato) and fresh produce. Ken Ordenstein, who handles logistics, reduces the halau’s footprint by buying local Hilo products and supplying refillable water bottles.
On Oahu, for 20 years, the halau has been clearing invasive plants from the Waianae Range and harvesting, for their lei, some of the native palapalai ferns that grow back.
De Silva has also helped to grow a new generation of Hawaiian leaders, as her students have become educators, community advocates, artists and kumu hula.
“Just as she has helped me to grow from a shy young girl to womanhood, we of the halau as well as the greater community benefit from her family’s work and those like them who are striving to maintain a thriving Hawaiian culture,” wrote Kahulu De Santos, a cultural adviser at Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa and 1994 kumu hula graduate of Halau Mohala ‘Ilima, in an email.
“What lives on is more than dance,” de Silva said, yet her dances, to many, are unforgettable.