Hula / Dance


Hula / Dance

Māpuana and Kīhei deSilva

The first warning came in February, as eighteen hālau hula were preparing for Merrie Monarch, the oldest and most competitive hula festival in Hawai‘i. At first, rehearsals seemed to progress as in previous years: Three, four nights a week the kumu hula chanted, and over and over again the dancers’ motions conveyed the meaning of the words. But this year, each hālau was required to dance a chant that described Wāwāhonua‘aho, the magical gourd belonging to Hina, the goddess mother of Moloka‘i.
The chant told the story of Hina’s love for the island of Moloka‘i and its people, who had become haughty and proud and were neglecting to care for the land. To reprove them, Hina uncovered her gourd just enough to release one of three winds, Ilinahu, the warning wind. Ilinahu blew across Moloka‘i with such force that trees snapped with a crack heard all the way across the channel on Maui. The people ignored Hina’s warning, so she opened her gourd again, this time halfway, and Uluhewa emerged. Clouds darkened offshore and a gale gathered thunder and rain and hurled itself against the island, flooding houses and farms. In spite of the storm, the people remained obstinate. Hina had no choice but to unleash Lūlūku, and only the humblest survived the hurricane that swept away the rest of life on Moloka‘i. The island was clean once more.
Hawaiians have an ‘ōlelo no‘eau, a proverb, that says, “Aia ke ola i ka waha; aia ka make i ka waha/Life is in the mouth; death is in the mouth.” Spoken words can enliven, and they can destroy. Some people feared that with the countless rehearsals around the state--the constant reenactment of Hina’s story--women preparing for the Merrie Monarch Festival were chanting and dancing Hina’s story to life.
On February 16, a fierce windstorm swept down the slopes of Mauna Kea on the Big Island, where the Merrie Monarch is held every year. Another devastating storm hit the island on Thursday night, April 3, when the Merrie Monarch was under way in Hilo. Wind-driven rain drowned the Hilo, Puna, and Hämäkua districts with up to thirteen inches of water. Police closed the highways, as lightning struck utility poles islandwide, cutting power to most areas for more than six hours. In Hilo, the lights flickered and the hula stadium was dark for a few minutes.
The following night, after nine women’s groups had danced the required Wāwāhonua‘aho hula, a third storm moved over Hilo, matching Hina’s trio of progressively fiercer punishments. The sky unleashed bolts of lightning that were purple--the color of Moloka‘i. Thunder boomed through Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium, silencing the usually boisterous hula crowd. Just before the second half of the competition, a lightning bolt struck a transformer outside the stadium, and the building went completely black. The audience of five thousand people waited in darkness, and the festival’s emcee, illuminated by a battery-powered lamp, tried to keep them calm by leading them in singing “Row-Row-Row Your Boat” and “Old MacDonald.” Underneath the bleachers, where dancers prepared for going onstage, the twenty-four women of Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima held hands and discussed whether they would dance. After a forty-minute blackout, electricity was restored, but many of the dancers were still shaken.
When the O‘ahu hālau was called to perform, kumu hula Māpuana deSilva walked onstage and calmly announced, “Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima will not be performing here tonight. We feel it is not appropriate for us to perform. My first concern is for my dancers and caring for them. Thank you.”
The storm abated.
Whether the decision of Mōhala ‘Ilima not to perform was appropriate depends on whom one asks. Some kumu hula believe the wrathful Moloka‘i chant was never intended for performance on the Big Island, and that the withdrawal of Mōhala ‘Ilima defused the powerful supernatural forces. Others interpreted the thunder as Hina demonstrating her pleasure with the performances. Still others maintain that as long as hālau believe in the Christian God and dance with clean hearts and minds, no harm will result.
Kīhei deSilva, kumu hula Māpuana deSilva’s husband and the scholar-in-residence for Mōhala ‘Ilima, told a reporter that the lightning and thunder disturbed many of their dancers, disrupting the serenity that the group normally relies on to “center” before a performance. The members of the hālau unanimously decided not to dance. “Hula teaches sensitivity to what comes from nature,” Kīhei said. “If you succeed in being sensitive, and you feel that the elements are telling you something, then you have to listen. How can you tell a good story if everyone feels bad about it?”
The deSilvas do not believe their dancers have the power to start or stop a storm, but they know the women’s dance motions convey living stories within the chants and songs. Telling these stories well depends not only on respecting the traditions of their elders and the spirit of places such as Moloka‘i and Hilo but also on the ability to shape a diverse group of people into a unified hālau. For the deSilvas, the pursuit of physical and spiritual unity has become more important than a Merrie Monarch trophy, but it wasn’t always that way.

The story of Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima begins in the late 1960s, when the Hawaiian Renaissance reached out to Leslie Howell in Forest Grove, Oregon. She was studying physical education at Pacific University, where the Hawaiian Club asked her to teach hula for its annual lū‘au. Teaching came easily to Leslie, and for four years she taught dances at Pacific University. She made them up or learned them during semester breaks at her childhood home in Ka‘ōhao, a windward O‘ahu suburb better known as Lanikai. Unable to find a job in physical education after returning to Hawai‘i in 1971, Leslie began working at a travel agency. To avoid confusion with another employee named Leslie, she started going by her middle name, Māpuana.
Māpuana was still dating her high school sweetheart, Kīhei deSilva, who had grown up in Hilo and on O‘ahu. Kīhei had attended Pomona College in California, and after four years of English studies and water polo, he returned to Hawai‘i. He had a bachelor’s degree, long hair, the desire to become a teacher, and a need to assert a Hawaiian identity that he had ignored during high school at Kamehameha Schools, the private academy for native Hawaiian students.
While Māpuana learned the travel business and accounting, Kīhei worked toward his master’s degree in English at the University of Hawai‘i, which eventually led to a teaching job at Kamehameha. In between, he took part in native protests against land development and strengthened his spirit by going body surfing. He and Māpuana decided to get married.
In December 1971, Māpuana visited a hula class taught by a woman named Maiki Aiu Lake. More than a hula teacher, Maiki was a kumu hula, dedicated to passing on the legacy of hula. Young Hawaiians were hungry to learn, to absorb this part of their heritage, and by sharing her knowledge with would-be teachers, Maiki would ensure that the tradition would survive long after she was gone. Over the course of fifteen years, her classes graduated more than thirty master teachers.
Maiki’s knowledge was old knowledge, passed on to her by Lokalia Montgomery, who in turn had received it from Keaka Kanahele. Keaka was born during the 1860s in the remote O‘ahu village of Lā‘ie, where as a child she had been set apart for the study of hula and had learned dances and chants passed down through the centuries. In isolated settlements such as Lā‘ie and the nearby village of Kahana, as in the Ka‘ū and Puna districts on the Big Island, many old Hawaiian traditions were preserved. People like Keaka, Pua Ha‘aheo, Mary Kawena Pukui, and Mary Kanahele were hula masters who passed on their living history to students and family, whose own children and students would become teachers of the old dances and chants.
Cultural traditions survived in these villages because of their remote locations, far away from nineteenth-century commerce and Westernization. Beginning in the mid-1800s, traditional hula started to become more of a commercialized entertainment. Honolulu and Lahaina were flourishing whaling ports, with visiting sailors who had the appetite and money to support hula performances that emphasized the more sensual hula moves. Calvinist missionaries and their converts tried to banish the dance entirely but failed, and public hula in the cities gradually came to emphasize romantic, silly, and naughty hapa-haole (English-Hawaiian) songs sung at pageants and carnivals and for the increasing number of tourists. Entertaining the island visitors with hula-hula turned into a small industry employing musicians, dancers, and hula teachers, including those who held on to the ancient traditions and privately passed them along.
Māpuana watched Maiki and knew that she wanted to study hula with her. “Through the whole time that I was with Aunty Maiki, the feeling that I remember most . . . from watching her teach is how much she loved it and how much she loved hula. . . . It didn’t matter what the song was or how many times she had taught it. It didn’t matter whether the hula was ‘auana or kahiko. The love she had is the strongest image I have, that I always have when I teach. . . . Hula is Aunty Maiki to me. When she was teaching and when she was dancing, it was like nothing else mattered. That’s probably what gave her life--her hula. It was her breath of life.”
For a year, Māpuana studied ‘auana, a type of hula generally regarded as any “modern” hula accompanied by Western musical instruments. Its counterpart is called kahiko, the pre–Western-contact style of hula usually performed to a chant, sometimes with traditional percussive implements. Then she joined Maiki’s third class of kumu hula students, graduating in 1975. A year passed before she found an outlet for her training as a teacher of both ancient and modern hula.
Robert Lokomaika‘iokalani Snakenberg, a Hawaiian-language teacher, asked Māpuana to choreograph the May Day pageant at his high school for the annual festival of hula and lei-giving also known as Lei Day. Māpuana had doubts about being able to do it, but after many long practice sessions her students were so happy--both during and after their performance--that they did not want the hula to stop. Māpuana was inspired by their enthusiasm and energy. In 1976, she opened her own hālau.
Lokomaika‘i named Māpuana’s school Mōhala ‘Ilima, after the ‘ilima blossom, the same delicate orange flower of O‘ahu that had been the symbol for Māpuana’s kumu hula class. Māpuana gave her first lesson on the concrete slab fronting her parents’ house in Ka‘ōhao. When the rains fell, she and her students went indoors and danced around the living room furniture. “When I started, I really didn’t know what direction I was going to take. I just wanted to teach because I loved it, and people kept asking me if I would teach.”
Māpuana’s students told their friends about her, and her cozy hālau grew. Success at the Merrie Monarch Festival, especially the hālau’s first win, in 1981, attracted more students. As classes at the hālau filled, more were added, and new opportunities arose for the deSilvas. They tore down the old Ka‘ōhao homestead and built a two-story house for their family of four plus Māpuana’s parents and brother. The new building included eight hundred square feet of rehearsal space for the hālau, and an office.
By the 1990s, Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima had become one of the state’s largest hula schools, with three associate kumu trained by Māpuana. Several hundred women, girls, and boys are enrolled in a variety of classes, including the Merrie Monarch class, for which Māpuana selects certain dancers each year.
After twelve years at Kamehameha Schools, Kīhei was able to quit his full-time teaching job because of the hālau’s success. He loved teaching, but it did not afford him time to follow his passion for research and scholarship, for writing, and for creating new songs and chants. At a party, he overheard an elder recall the words of Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui: “The talents that we have are gifts from God. If we choose to ignore those gifts, then they will be taken away from us.” He decided it was time to leave the Schools and focus solely on the hālau.

Kīhei often worked in the hālau office, spectacled, barefoot, wearing shorts and his favorite baggy T-shirt from Disneyland, the one with Eeyore’s head drooping across the front. The donkey’s eyes seemed weary from Kīhei’s long hours at the computer as he typed up the results of his research at the State Archives.
“If I could go every day to the Archives, I would go, because there is so much there that needs to be translated and interpreted, revived and brought back into the culture. It’s overwhelming how much is there, and it’s waiting for people to come in. . . . I’m just a scholar, but I’m married to the kumu hula, and what I research in an academic fashion translates into a performance that we can bring to life next year at Merrie Monarch. That is really an incredible, satisfying high. . . . I love being able to do that.”
The hälau grew deliberately, with an ever-widening group of family and friends augmenting the core group of dancers. Husbands, boyfriends, fathers, and mothers became devoted followers, and one group of supportive business people devised the nonprofit Mākālei Foundation to raise funds for special hālau competitions and scholarships.
Similar growth was taking place at other hula schools across Hawai‘i, but Māpuana and Kīhei were fostering something unusual. Their hālau did several things at once: It communicated their Hawaiian values to students, friends, and audiences; its success allowed the dancers rare opportunities for travel and growth, such as trips to the mainland and retreats at Kē‘ē on Kaua‘i, one of hula’s most sacred places; and it paid their bills. Most other kumu had only evenings and weekends free to devote to the cultural practice that for Māpuana and Kīhei had become an all-encompassing way of life.
Winning the Merrie Monarch competition in 1981 was a major turning point in the hālau’s growing process. “When we heard the results that we had won, everybody just lost control,” Kīhei said. “I remember people hugging each other, falling on the floor, knocking over glasses on the table. That night two of the girls disappeared and got drunk and we had to track them down. We ended up having a meeting in the hotel room at two in the morning, going over everything with everybody, asking if this behavior was really what winning was about, if winning is really worth it. It got pretty clear after that that winning is harder to handle than losing. If you can lose with dignity, it should be possible to win with dignity.”
In the early 1980s, Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima performed Māpuana’s self-invented and award-winning choreography, but as the deSilvas matured through hula, they began to sense that their choreography should follow the simple, graceful motions of Māpuana’s teacher, Maiki Aiu Lake, and Maiki’s teachers. The women of Mōhala ‘Ilima danced back to an older, simpler tradition. Many observers thought it was boring. “Who cares?” Māpuana asked. “We like what we’re doing. It has meaning for us.”
Her remark seems unusually pointed for a woman who is perceived publicly as the epitome of aloha. Beneath Māpuana’s grace and humility, her laughter and willingness to share, there are convictions as strong as the Ka‘iwa ridgeline behind the deSilva house. Her strength guards and cultivates Mōhala ‘Ilima. Singleminded dedication drives her to balance the books, oversee the hālau calendar, choreograph new dances, command attention from her students, and memorize hundreds of names, chants, and motions. And if a student needs to remove a ti-leaf stain from a blouse, Māpuana will tell her how to prewash it with Clorox Stain Out.
Māpuana made the “Who cares?” statement a few months after a Merrie Monarch competition, seated with Kīhei on the carpet of their hālau. The husband and wife sipped Diet Pepsi as their daughters, Kahikina and Kapalai‘ula, sprawled nearby, reading and drawing.
“We started out pretty competitive,” Kīhei said, “and that competitiveness was driven by a desire to make a name for ourselves, to gain recognition, to be something in the hula community.”
Although Māpuana is the kumu, the hālau has gradually become a shared responsibility between her and Kīhei. During conversation, the kumu often defers to her husband. Once the silent partner in Mōhala ‘Ilima, Kīhei now enjoys articulating the philosophies that guide them.
“It’s so different,” he said. “It’s still competitive in the sense that we enter competitions, but it’s noncompetitive in that we don’t have a life-or-death interest in the results. To me, the intensity is just as strong in the depth of our understanding of what we are doing, when the dancers really feel the message and meaning and they have an understanding of it--when they have more to think about than their lines or their feet or their hands.
“Of course, our dancers have to learn those things--the stress on formation and precision--but there’s much more to teach and talk about. The dancers are learning to sing because Māpuana wants them to enjoy their dancing--singing while they’re dancing! And something else is happening; we’re not very strong on drill anymore--more emphasis on meaning. There is a transition taking place in our hula, from hula as a visual presentation to hula as a spiritual and meaningful presentation. In order to convey that, to make that change, we need dancers who are willing to spend a lot of time learning what it is they are dancing.”
Kīhei cited the hālau’s study of the Hawaiian language as the best evidence that the dancers understand what they are dancing. “It’s interesting now how many of the students don’t need to be told to smile because they understand so well what they are doing that they don’t need the prompt.”
Over the years, Kīhei has taken on tasks that challenge the scholar and artist within. He writes his own songs, researches dances and chants, teaches Hawaiian language and culture to the dancers, designs and silkscreens hundreds of Mōhala ‘Ilima T-shirts, and generally helps Māpuana guide and shape the younger dancers--like the teacher he has always been.
During practices, however, it is Māpuana who pushes the Merrie Monarch women toward perfection. The routine is always the same: After the dancers warm up, Māpuana has them repeat basic hula motions--Hula 101. Within fifteen minutes, they are sweaty and out of breath.
“Imitate somebody you like so you don’t look like one statue walking down the stage,” Māpuana barked at her women with a drill sergeant’s exasperation. “Do you know where you are going? Do you know what box you are heading to? Don’t be a statue with words coming out of your mouth. Smile!”
Māpuana stops the tape and rewinds it. As the women wipe away sweat and return to their starting positions, some giggle and laugh enthusiastically, and others shyly mask their feelings of insecurity or distraction. Indeed, this group reflects the range of personalities, races, and physiques that characterize humanity--from melancholy to happy, from haole to Japanese, from skinny to fat. The physical heterogeny of Mōhala ‘Ilima is notable, given that competition dancers usually conform to a certain look favored by their kumu.
Mōhala ‘Ilima dancers instead display an unusual consistency of grace and kindness--a characteristic encouraged by the hālau. From most students the attitude is genuine, and it is reinforced by Māpuana’s insistence on rules, discipline, courtesy, and respect--and by the dancers’ awareness that compliance means acceptance by the kumu and the hālau.
Māpuana has always had lots of rules, which some new dancers interpret as aimed at controlling their behavior rather than improving their hula. Like the ones about makeup. From the beginning, the kumu hula has prohibited any makeup for ancient hula and allows only a minimum for a modern performance, partly because she does not like the way dancers look with cosmetics on their faces, but mostly because she wants the dancers’ true feelings, not makeup, to convey the spirit of the hula.
When they make ‘ulï‘ulï (gourd rattles) to accompany a competition dance, Māpuana cautions her students--both children and adults--not to make a rattle when they are frustrated or angry or in a hurry. “This is your dance companion. This is a living thing made from once living materials, so it has to be made carefully and well. . . . If you don’t put care into everything that you do, then somehow the negative energy that you put in will return.” The longer the dancers stay on with the hālau, the more they adopt the rules and principles of the hālau for their everyday lives.
“In the beginning they’re rules,” said Māpuana, “but after a while they just become choices for how the dancers choose to be, not just when they come to hula. . . . The values that we teach them here become the values that they live by every day, whether they are in hula or in school or at work or with their families. That’s what Aunty Maiki was trying to teach us--through hula you can learn all good values.”
“We’ve lost some dancers who didn’t see it the same way we did,” Kīhei said. “But we’ve got really good people and not a lot of robots. . . . And there’s proof that we’re doing good--the girls are staying. . . .
“There are people who are looking for the one answer to hula, the magic of hula, the mystery of hula,” Kïhei said. “People with that kind of feeling . . . ultimately, they don’t get along with us because we find the magic is acquired through experience, through repetition, and once you know it, you can’t really pass it on except to say, ‘Continue. Continue. Continue. Teach. Struggle. Give.’”
“Only good things have come out of hula for us,” Māpuana said. “Along the way, there are some things you want to forget; things that you did wrong. I made mistakes . . . but like I tell my girls, it’s not making the mistake that’s bad, it’s what you do after it; how you pick up the pieces, how you get back into things, whether you learn from that mistake or not. . . . I like where we are now. We’re working toward a smaller hālau. I’d like to have more time. I don’t want to be sixty years old and still teaching eleven classes a week. I’d like my dancers to be kūpuna dancing with Māpu. That would make me happy.”

Each year the Merrie Monarch Festival challenges Mōhala ‘Ilima to maintain its values and at the same time do well in the competition. In 1988, Māpuana decided to do what most kumu would have regarded as competitive suicide: She added to the Merrie Monarch competition group the “Wednesday Night Mommies,” a group of twenty-six women who had studied with Māpuana for many years.
To these women, Māpuana is their friend, and the hālau is a home away from home where they can learn some dances, socialize with their friends, and help at fund-raisers and competitions. Most Mommies no longer have the stamina or agility to execute the difficult motions and choreography expected by the audience in Hilo. And the Wednesday Night Mommies knew that Māpuana’s decision would double the competition group to an almost unworkable troupe of fifty-two dancers.
The choreography logistics alone were mind-boggling: moving the sizable hālau gracefully onto the stage and executing the transitions from two lines of dancers for the entrance chant into six lines for the compulsory chant, then to four lines for the elective chant, to the eight lines required for the exit chant.
Ninety days before Merrie Monarch, three Mommy dancers withdrew because of family-related deaths. Māpuana rearranged the lines and choreography. A month before the festival, the competition dancers asked the three women to rejoin them. Once again, Māpuana changed the lines and arrangement of their entrance. With each change, the fifty-two dancers had to learn new positions on the floor, with new partners at their sides. As usual, the dancers were gracious and adaptable, happy to have their hula sisters back.
Māpuana kept them practicing, smiling, and repeating the motions. She pulled out each line of dancers and had them perform alone in front of the others. She started the chant in the middle of a verse, had the hālau dance the chant backward, then forward, as individuals, all together, again and again. Weekly tests ensured the ladies knew the chants and songs inside out, and if skirts and feather lei were incorrectly made, they were resewn, sometimes more than once.
“You should be able to work hard and enjoy yourself and smile,” Māpuana told her dancers sternly, adding, “If you’re not, then you should reevaluate why you’re coming. If you’re enjoying it and you’re not smiling, then you’re on a different program and you got five days to get on mine.”
At home, husbands fed children and boyfriends cleaned house--apprenticeships brought about by the demands of hula on their partners. Finally, in mid-February, the hālau invited family and friends to see the results of their devotion at an annual fund-raiser for the hālau held at a farm in Waimānalo.
Beneath the sheer green cliffs of the Ko‘olau range, a thousand Mōhala ‘Ilima supporters relaxed on a vast lawn. Musicians sang and jammed while the hālau served bento lunches. Children ran everywhere; in the adjacent plumeria orchard, their laughter rose into the perfumed air like unexpected birdsong. Then the hula began, and time disappeared into the clear blue sky.
“We’re not just a hālau--we’re a family,” Māpuana tells her dancers every year. “If your family feels a part of what you’re doing, they don’t mind you doing it. You have to include them in everything you do, make them feel a part of it, and help them understand what you’re doing, so they can support you and be happy that you’re doing hula rather than feeling like it’s taking you away.”
The next week the women were back at rehearsals, and when Māpuana started the tape, they resumed practicing the art of moving as one. “Don’t wiggle your fingers! Together! Stay together! Front row stay together!” Some of the older women struggled; one sat her aching body down.
Kīhei leaned against a wall, peering into a book. He made notes on index cards and catalogued them in a file box for the hālau’s fact sheets, which the Merrie Monarch committee requires each group to submit to the judges. Many hālau turn in only a few pages. But Kīhei’s index cards evolved into a thirty-five-page document followed by an additional ninety-four pages of appendixes, which discussed the hālau’s chants and songs, its costuming, and the tradition of large group hula. Although Māpuana said she did not care what other people thought, the point of Kīhei’s exhaustive fact sheets was to justify the choices of Mōhala ‘Ilima for the judges.
The festival audience doesn’t see the fact sheets, but every year they expect a certain feel-good style from Māpuana’s hälau, just as they expect certain signature stylizations from the other “star” kumu and their hälau--Johnny Lum Ho’s emotional and spiritual stories, Alicia Smith’s controlled perfection, O’Brien Eselu and Thaddius Wilson’s athletic prowess. Each one creates from different traditions and inspirations, making it impossible for judges or kumu to establish one standard, especially for hula kahiko, which has become the art form’s most spectacular forum for interpretation and innovation. The argument that hula kahiko should be danced solely within documented traditional parameters irritates those kumu who believe hula is a living art form that can combine motions, costumes, and attitudes inspired by their own research and creativity.
In 1989, the year Māpuana’s Mommies were scheduled to perform, the festival committee assigned “No‘eno‘e Maika‘i Ke Aloha” (Beautiful in Appearance is Love) as the mandatory ancient chant to be danced by all women groups. The chant honors Kalākaua, the much beloved king who defied the missionaries and revived hula and other suppressed native arts during his reign (1874–1891).
The deSilvas care deeply about Kalākaua because of his efforts to perpetuate the native culture, and before every recital, their hālau honors him by dancing “Kāwika,” another chant in praise of Kalākaua. The deSilvas decided to pair “Kāwika,” their “choice chant,” with the required “No‘eno‘e” for a double tribute to the king.
“Kāwika” is the first hula to be learned by Mōhala ‘Ilima students. Some aficionados consider its motions and verse suitable only for children, but Māpuana continues to teach the dance, even to her advanced students. She believes “Kāwika” always reveals more than what is evident in its simple moves and words.
“The value of ‘Kāwika,’” Kīhei wrote in his fact sheet for the judges, “lies in the integrity of its music and choreography. ‘Kāwika’ is over one hundred years old. Our version extends through five generations of instruction; [this year] it suffers neither from neglect nor alteration.”
Māpuana bases her choreography for unfamiliar chants, such as “No‘eno‘e,” partly on Kīhei’s discoveries about a chant’s kaona--its second, often sacred, meaning hidden within the active wordplay often found in Hawaiian verse. Kīhei’s interpretations also reflect the ideology of Mōhala ‘Ilima that hula is a gift.
“Māpu has a gift [from Aunty Maiki],” Kīhei said, “a tradition of dance that she believes is a treasure, an inheritance which she is obligated to uphold. . . . [For No‘eno‘e] our fifty-two ladies weren’t supposed to become the swooping ‘iwa [bird] or the flower that the ‘iwa swoops down on.
“Our interpretation of No‘eno‘e was the boring hula pü‘ili [bamboo rattle]: repetitive movements, very little drama, no significant changes in formation, no wheels or merges or unmerges. Just basically tap-tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap-tap [of the pü‘ili]. That’s [our] style--boring,” Kīhei said, laughing. “There’s nothing remarkable about that performance in a sense. It wasn’t choreographed to be spectacular. It was choreographed to belong to the tradition.”
It was also choreographed so the Mommies could do well at Merrie Monarch. Kīhei explained, “Once you get the choreography down, then the real challenge occurs. Can they dance it with the right amount of spirit and expression that can transform the stadium . . . and silence the audience and somehow put them someplace else?”
Before that was possible, the dancers needed to get to Hilo. On Wednesday afternoon, they gathered at Honolulu airport for the forty-five-minute flight to the Big Island. Tourists in the terminal stared at the ladies. They were giggling and exited, dressed alike in bluejeans and hālau T-shirts. Heaps of good-luck lei, more beautiful than the usual Waikīkī garland, were draped around their necks. Māpuana had already passed out assignments for family and supporters once they reached Hilo--to make lei, watch children, drive eight vans, buy lunches and dinners, handle wake-up calls, and move equipment and costumes. She, Kīhei, the dancers, and musicians would concentrate on three nights of hula.

Jill Smyth was one of the Mommies. She had danced since she was six and had represented Mōhala ‘Ilima at other competitions. Jill’s friends knew she liked to have fun; they always heard her laughter long before they saw her. But when Jill first stepped into Kanaka‘ole Stadium and onto the stage for the hālau’s private rehearsal, she was petrified. “I did not want to dance anymore. . . . I wanted to get away. . . . Whatever made me think I had the guts to step on this stage with people at home watching their TV, and you know they are only looking for you, and people there in the audience, and you think, ‘My God, what if I stumble? What if I make a mistake? What if everybody’s turning left and I’m turning right?’ A million things. I started hyperventilating. I broke out in a cold sweat.”
Competing at Merrie Monarch is enough to make anyone nervous, but Jill was devastated and could not contain her fear. Kīhei talked to the women on the hotel lawn in the afternoon, after another practice. “I know a lot of you are nervous. A lot of you are questioning why you’re here, but you’re taking a very selfish attitude. You’re thinking ‘I’ instead of ‘we.’ You’re thinking, ‘I am on that stage. I am dancing. I am going to be looked at.’ But in actuality, there are fifty-two dancers. It’s ‘we’ who are going to be on that stage. It’s ‘we’ who are going to be dancing. And it’s ‘we’ who are going to be doing this.”
The festival begins Thursday night with the Miss Aloha Hula solo competition of ancient and modern hula for unmarried women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. Mōhala ‘Ilima would be represented by Valerie Māhealani Chang, who had danced with the hālau at six previous Merrie Monarchs.
As Val finished dressing in an assigned area beneath the stadium’s concrete seats, sometimes laughing with Māpuana and Kahulu Ka‘iama, her attendant, she could hear kumu onstage chanting for other competitors. The crowd cheered for especially dramatic and athletic moves--when soloists’ bodies quaked in volcanic vibrations or when they sat on their haunches and swept the floor with their backs. Costume colors blazed in the bright television lights. Outer skirts of green ti or blond raffia billowed over multiple cloth skirts--red, gray, blue, yellow, purple, or lime green. The dancers’ hair supported rainbows and geysers of flowers and greens; their bodies were drenched with the plants of the forest, even seaweed from the shore.
Val, a quiet, almost shy woman with a bubbling laugh and a master’s degree in elementary education, would dance wearing another carefully reasoned Mōhala ‘Ilima statement--a plain unbleached muslin skirt and blouse.
“This is to say that money can’t do the important things; neither can fashion,” Kīhei told the judges on the fact sheet. “Val won’t compete against what she wears; her costume won’t obscure her mele or hula. She wouldn’t be our representative if we thought she needed that kind of prettying up.”
If the judges wanted to know more, the fact sheet explained: “We [do not] go to extremes of time and expense to keep up with what is currently fashionable on the competition stage. . . . Our kahiko costumes cost less than $50 each . . . [and] with less than $50 each, we manage to achieve a distinctive and even expensive look; but that look is paid for with planning, busy hālau hands, and careful valuing.”
Val’s time to go onstage arrived. Māpuana and Kahulu accompanied her to center stage, chanting. Then they stepped back, not to the microphones that other kumu used, but a few yards away, where they sat down and began “Kalākaua He Inoa,” a name chant honoring the king:

Kalākaua, he inoa
Ka pua mae ‘ole i ka lä;
He pua mai la i ka mauna,
I ke kuahiwi o Mauna-kea.

Val became a flower blooming in the mountain forests of Mauna Kea, a flower too strong and beautiful for the sun to wilt, a flower reflecting the greatness of Kalākaua. For Kīhei and Māpuana, Val personified what the Mommies would be striving to achieve the next two nights. Kīhei said that when Val danced, her motions transformed the language into a tide gently ebbing and flowing. “That epitomizes our style at its best--the absence of sharp, rough, abbreviated, or broken gestures. . . . The dance encompasses more than herself. Rather than defining limits, it’s more of a style that doesn’t end at the end of the finger, that doesn’t end at the end of the foot, but reaches out and encompasses and enfolds.” When she finished, Val bowed her head politely to the festival’s royal court and left the stage.
Next came the modern hula competition, and the stage became a ballroom of swirling satin and lace and velvet evening gowns as each soloist swept across the plywood floor, their hair bejeweled with floral headdresses and crowns. Val danced barefoot and happily in a simple white mu‘umu‘u. Her hula felt as spontaneous and loving as a dance for a baby’s first birthday lŻ‘au, and she was awarded fourth place among the solo performers.
For Friday night’s group performance, the hula kahiko competition, the hālau prepared in the nearby Civic Auditorium. While supporters readied a buffet dinner, Māpuana sat her ladies on the wooden bleachers for a pep talk. “When you take off your own clothes, let a little bit of yourself go. Each time you put on a dress costume, get a little bit closer to each other. We all need each other.”
Māpuana thanked the women for the wonderful feelings they had given her, told them how beautiful they were, and reminded them to enjoy everything. Some of the women started to weep.
“I said warm them up; not wring them out!” It was Kīhei’s turn, and he told the ladies why this hālau differed from others, how at each Merrie Monarch, Mōhala ‘Ilima tried to share something about hula, even if the audience couldn’t see or didn’t care.
Kīhei explained to the judges, “We come to offer enthusiastic praise of Hawai‘i, to delight in the vitality of hula, and to find joy in being together. We certainly have no intention of bringing fifty-two [dancers] every year; the investment of time and money alone make that an impossibility. We do feel, however, that after a decade of competition there is more to say about ourselves than ‘Here are the twenty dancers who give us the best chance of winning.’”
The Hilo evening rains smacked the auditorium roof as the women quietly dressed. They put on blue bloomers, blue tops, gold feather head lei, yellow and then red underskirts, blue overskirts, gold kerchiefs, white shell necklaces, gold wrist and ankle lei. Some of the women knew the customary old dressing ceremonies and chants, traditions Māpuana had learned from Maiki, but this protocol was impractical for fifty-two dancers at Merrie Monarch, and Kīhei explained Māpuana’s improvisation to the judges:
“Our attitude toward dressing and undressing is certainly one of order, care, and reverence. We use dressing as a time for quiet meditation, for leaving behind, with our street clothes, all that is not of the hula world. Each lady is carefully tied in, and the tying is checked, layer by layer, and step by step. . . . No one is allowed to become distracted from the spiritual preparation that must keep pace with its physical counterpart. . . . It is always our goal that each dancer--when she is fully dressed, our prayer-circle formed, and the pule [prayer] given--be transformed into her best self.”
By 8:13 p.m. the dancers were dressed. Māpuana kissed each one and gave her the tip of a budding ti leaf to be secured within her costume, for good luck. Then she dressed in her kīkepa, a strapless sack dress that she made for her kumu hula graduation fourteen years earlier. The symbol of that accomplishment was a matching kīhei, or cloak, that she placed over the kīkepa and secured with a knot on her left shoulder. Her women stretched, chanted “we--we--we,” and then went through the motions of their dance one more time before holding hands in prayer. When they stepped outside to the idling vans, the rain had stopped. Only stars filled the sky.
The vans took three minutes to reach the stadium. Intermission was almost over. Children ran along the sidewalks, and in the parking lot a bus pulled up to unload another hālau. People crowded the entrance, trying to get to seats. Thousands of ticket holders talked and laughed, sharing sodas, chili, and rice with friends unseen since the year before. Māpuana’s women had arrived at Hilo’s biggest party, and it was their turn to dance.
They got out of the vans silently and walked barefoot along a sharp gravel path still wet from rain. They lined up, arms folded and raised in front of their chests, waiting for Māpuana’s signal to squeeze through the crowd loitering around the entrance. Eyes straight ahead, they walked past other costumed dancers, who were gabbing and posing for friends’ cameras or staring as the hālau split in two and moved toward the ramps that would lead Mōhala ‘Ilima onto the stage. Master of ceremonies Kimo Kaho‘ano quieted the audience and announced, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, from Kailua, O‘ahu, under the direction of their kumu hula Māpuana deSilva, welcome Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima.” The dancers stepped into the heart of Merrie Monarch, formed their lines, and danced for Kalākaua as Māpuana chanted and beat out the rhythm on her ipu.
Afterward, the women filed offstage and quietly went back outside to their waiting vans. Finally, they could release their feelings, as the heat from their bodies mixed with Hilo’s cool night air and steamed up the van windows. “It felt terrific.” “It was so fun.” “It was nice.” “Wow.” Even Jill Smyth survived. “I danced the whole kahiko set with very little scope to my vision. . . . I could see my hula sisters, left, right, forward, and back and that helped calm me down, and after it was done . . . it was like a tremendous weight got lifted from my shoulders and I thought, ‘Wow, this wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.’”
Back at the Civic, Māpuana and Kīhei beamed. “The best part of Merrie Monarch is you get to dance again,” Māpuana told them, knowing they would experience the same joy the next night during the modern hula performance. “Now, you may have made a little mistake, your line may have been a little crooked, but you only get two minutes to think about that.” She was proud of them, and told them their hula had exhilarated her. The ladies went to bed glowing.
The hālau did not place among the winners in the hula kahiko competition and took fifth place out of eighteen groups in the hula ‘auana competition. Kīhei and Māpuana did not care that the hālau had not won higher honors. “You were yourself,” Māpuana told them in their closing prayer circle Saturday night. “I’m pleased. You did the best that you could, and that was very, very good.”
On Monday, after Sunday’s day of rest, the hālau traveled together to Kīlauea in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. As a special thank-you, the women would perform the ancient chants one more time for the contingent of family and friends who had accompanied them to Hilo.
Their stage was a pā hula, a special platform for hula that the Park Service dedicated in 1980. The pä was built of lava chunks and ‘ili‘ili pebbles in a thicket of koa and ‘ōhi‘a lehua trees. Many hands had helped gather the ‘ili‘ili stones on the Puna coast and carry them through the Ka‘ū desert up to the edge of Kīlauea crater. The pā overlooks the sulphur clouds rising out of Halema‘uma‘u caldera and promotes a close communion with the ancestors of Hawai‘i, especially Pele, the volcano goddess whose legends the hālau often dances.
Four of the ladies who would soon graduate as hula teachers danced for their Mōhala ‘Ilima sisters and supporters. Val followed, sharing her kahiko solo. Then Māpuana called forward each first-time Merrie Monarch dancer to receive an unbleached muslin skirt that was hers alone, unlike the kahiko costumes worn during the festival, which belong to the hālau. The veteran ladies wept as they watched Māpuana tie the new skirts around the waists of the women who had just completed their first Merrie Monarch.
“By the time Merrie Monarch comes, most of my dancers have come to some kind of decision,” Māpuana said later, “because it’s so intense for so long that a lot of things get put off. For the majority of them, the decisions they’ve made show at the hula platform at Kīlauea. As that’s being done, I see what’s happening. . . . I’m getting a deeper look into them. I’m getting my own questions about them answered. I see and feel things about them that I wasn’t able to see before.”
The women tucked away soggy tissues, lined up in their Merrie Monarch rows, and stood facing Halema‘uma‘u as Māpuana lifted her ipu to tap out the beats of the chant honoring Kalākaua.
The dancers’ feet moved over the pebbles, and the clicking sound they made blended with the rustling of pū‘ili, the split stalks of bamboo that flew in the women’s hands. Birds in the koa and ‘ōhi‘a lehua trees chirped like children, while a ranger’s siren howled in the distance.

Mapuana and Kihei deSilva: Hula / Dance