Keiki Hula
In Hawaii, love of traditional dance, discipline, and culture blossoms early

Story by Lynn Cook
Photos by Dana Edmunds

“I was four years old when I went to keiki hula at Auntie Mapu’s house,” says Rebecca Lilinoekekapahaumaunakea Sterling, known to her halau as just Lilinoe. “The first thing I saw was a bunch of ‘big’ girls, maybe five or six years old. They were all in a line, moving together, dancing hula. It was amazing. I went to class every week, but for the first two or three months, I sat on an auntie’s lap, just watching. I didn’t think I could dance. I just wasn’t ready. To this day I don’t do things unless I am completely ready.”

The hula school was Halau Mohala Ilima, and Lilinoe’s teacher was and still is kumu hula Mapuana de Silva. Lilinoe’s sister Pua soon joined, too, and from tiny dancers the sisters moved to teen classes, dancing through high school and into their college years. More than twenty years later both are still dancers. Lilinoe’s ability as anake — that is, “auntie” or assistant — to the younger students even brought an invitation from kumu Mapuana to teach the “babies,” the four-year-olds. Then Lilinoe started teaching students age five through eight. “The babies have so much energy, rejuvenating energy!” Lilinoe says. “No matter how tired you are from college classes or a job, they work their magic.”

In the Islands thousands of young haumana (students) like the Sterling sisters join Hawaii’s hundreds of halau (hula schools) at single-digit ages, maturing into accomplished dancers comfortable in their ability and grace. Keiki hula became prominent in the 1970s as part of a broader revival of interest in things Hawaiian now called the Hawaiian Renaissance. It was in the mid-’70s that the largest and longest-running keiki hula event, the Queen Liliuokalani Hula Competition, started in Aala Park, in Honolulu’s Chinatown. What started as a girls-only competition grew to include boys; it moved from Aala Park to the Farrington High School auditorium to the Blaisdell Center Arena, where today it draws an audience of two thousand each day for three days every July. Mapuana has entered keiki in the event nearly every year since 1980. “In the early years I would pick up all the girls in my van, take them to Kamehameha School to practice and then drive them all home,” she says. The first year they took first place in auana, modern hula. In the second year, first place in kahiko, ancient hula.

Coming from the Auntie Maiki Aiu Lake tradition of hula, Mapuana’s costumes are simple, allowing the hula and the dancer to be the focal point. Plumeria is usually the flower of choice. White blouses and hula skirts for girls, white shirts, slacks and a ti leaf skirt for the boys. Lilinoe remembers the competition as “mostly fun; I was a bit nervous, getting dressed up to go on stage to dance with my hula sisters.” Though there are solo dance competitions at the Queen Liliuokalani competition, Mapuana doesn’t enter her students in them. For her, hula is about collaboration. “My kids always ask why we don’t enter a single boy or girl for Miss or Master Keiki Hula,” says Mapuana. “I ask them, ‘Who would you want me to choose: you or someone else?’ Then there are no more questions.” She encourages the dancers to compete with themselves and not worry too much about which hula school will win. “Always work to do your own personal best,” Mapuana says. “Be happy with what you present.”

The first year Mapuana’s boys’ class entered, they chanted an eight-verse oli. “I drove them from Kailua to Honolulu in my van. On the way over the Pali Highway, they chanted until it was memorized, then they chanted in rounds.” On the way home, she says, they chanted it backward. “Young brains,” Mapuana smiles. The boys placed first.

Growing up in a house that doubled as a hula studio in the middle of a pineapple field on Oahu, Olana Ai watched her mother, Blossom Kailiponi Clark Kaipo, teach and then go off to perform at the Green Lantern in Honolulu. “Our house was three-and-a-half miles inside the plantation,” she says. “We knew our mom was important because she gave hula shows from the back of a pineapple truck.” She remembers one spring cleaning when she was four years old: She and her siblings found their mother’s cellophane skirts, pinned them up, put them on and pretended to dance. “Mom said, ‘OK, you want to dance? You are going to hula class!’ We knew it was on Saturday,” says Olana, “but we didn’t know that it would be for the rest of our life!”  

Olana and her husband, Howard Ai, had three children in three different schools, and Olana asked each school what she could do to contribute. Hula was the answer. “I taught classes on my patio,” she says. Eventually Olana took her after-school dancers off the lanai and into the world. “Getting up my courage, I called Wendell Silva, program coordinator for the Kalihi-Palama Culture and Arts Society, organizers of the Queen Liliuokalani Hula Competition. I asked if I could bring my daughter, Natalie, to compete for Miss Keiki Hula. ‘Bring your whole group,’ he said.”

They did, and they did it on a shoestring. “Howard was teaching the boys’ class and teaching the parents to make lei,” Olana remembers. “I was running around looking for a costume pattern that was ‘girly,’ like a princess. I found sixty-three-cents-a-yard pink fabric and a pattern and handed it out to the parents. At 2 a.m. we were still making lei. Our dancers took the title, and we kept that signature look forevermore.”

Today, Olana’s Halau Hula Olana is known for giving very young dancers performing experience at events and conventions, where the students move gracefully through the room and onto the stage. For a dozen years they have also participated in the twenty-plus-year-old Na Mele o Maui keiki hula competition at the Kaanapali Beach Hotel. Halau Hula Olana has performed on national television in the halftime show at many of the past Pro Bowls, taking hula to a new audience outside Hawaii. For the 2013 Pro Bowl pre-game show they stepped outside the hula box as part of the crowd of five hundred dancers performing to the sound of five hundred ukulele playing Train’s “Hey Soul Sister."

Young kumu hula Iliahi and Haunani Paredes followed similar paths on two different islands. Iliahi began dancing an athletic hula with Howard Ai on Oahu. In 1987 he earned the title of Master Keiki Hula at the Queen Liliuokalani competition. On Maui, Haunani’s hula path led her to kumu hula Uluwehi Guerrero and Kealii Reichel. Iliahi was in law school when Haunani’s halau traveled to Oahu and performed with his. “It was love at first sight,” he says. “Destiny.” They married and settled on Maui, where they founded Halau Kekuaokalaaualaliahi. They began teaching keiki, bringing a group of dancers to the Queen Liliuokalani competition every year.

For Halau Kekuaokalaaualailiahi the path to the 2012 Queen Liliuokalani Keiki Hula Competition was set a year in advance, when the kumu selected two dancers to represent the halau. “We see something in a dancer,” Iliahi says, “and we let them know they will represent us. It is a joy when our instincts are right.” And indeed last year they were. Before a crowd of several thousand, two of Haunani and Iliahi’s students won the top honors: Lexi Mae Pruse was named Miss Keiki Hula, and Alema Ebana was named Master Keiki Hula 2012. It’s rare that both Miss and Master Keiki Hula come from the same halau, because some enter only boys, others only girls and some enter only groups. After her win the newly crowned Lexi laughed and said, “When my kumu asked me to dance, I thought it would mean another practice, maybe two hours a week.” Both students soon realized that it would be more like six hours a week. They needed to learn the Hawaiian words as well as the movements so that they could understand what they were dancing. They also needed to get comfortable dancing solo, not surrounded by the usual group of dancers.

The icing on the cake for the pair was the invitation to dance in the Brothers Cazimero Christmas Concert the following December at the Hawaii Theatre in Honolulu. The 1,400-seat theater was filled to capacity; the dancers had their own dressing rooms backstage. They were more nervous performing in the show than they had been in the competition, but they “felt like celebrities,” says Lexi, as they danced their winning hula one more time. Neither Alema nor Lexi wants to stop here, though. Lexi says she would like to be named Miss Aloha Hula, the highest honor for a solo female dancer at the Merrie Monarch Festival. Alema hopes the men’s halau will win Merrie Monarch’s overall trophy. At ages eleven and ten, the two have time to work on it.

Hula can begin early for the keiki in Hawaii; moms-to-be have been known to go from hula practice to the delivery room — and back, as soon as they can. Kumu hula Maile Beamer Loo created “baby-wearing hula” classes to get new moms up and dancing when their babies are only a few weeks old. They smile and sway to the music as their keiki rest on their shoulders. Soon it becomes a family affair. Moms and sometimes dads, brothers or uncles sit in a Saturday morning circle with the babies, doing the hula moves. Then comes the “big day” when the four-year-old, typically, enters the halau and the world of hula training.

Children who begin hula at an early age often stay with the same halau all of their lives and then bring their own keiki to learn from the same kumu. Kumu who teach keiki say that the younger dancers learn songs and chants at warp speed, while many adults struggle as if they were learning advanced calculus. Dancers might take breaks for college, marriage and career, but the pull of hula never lets up. When dancers find a hula home, they go back, often bringing friends, aunties and uncles with them. “Once hula has been imprinted in the brain,” says Loo, “no matter where you go, the opening slack key guitar strum of a Keola Beamer song brings movement to hands and the urge to dance.”  

Parents are asked to put their complete trust in the kumu, anticipating that their daughter or son will be learning far more than dance. The halau is a place to learn the culture of hula and the stories behind the songs, chants and flowers. Hula is often a child’s introduction to the Hawaiian language — which they learn with a facility that makes the older dancers jealous. Students and parents learn how to weave a ti leaf lei and sew a ti leaf skirt that will hold together through a hula performance.

The training seems to bring out the best in everyone, including even the youngest dancers. At the door there’s no slipper pile-up; they’re arranged in a straight row. A week into the new school year, first-grade teachers across the Islands have been known to ask the most polite and organized girls, “Who do you dance for?” It isn’t just girls; boys are also joining hula classes in growing numbers. They follow the path of ancient Hawaiian warriors who developed their coordination, comprehension, flexibility and concentration. Today the training leads to both confidence as a dancer and agility in sports; coaches in Island schools keep an eye out for boys who’ve had some hula training, because they are often athletically light-years ahead of those who haven’t.

Loo likes to tell a story about Auntie Nona Beamer’s hula classes at Kamehameha Schools and the group of boys who would sneak out of their ROTC class and hide in a storeroom to watch. Beamer would say, “You boys get out here and learn this dance or I’ll turn you in!”

After a short lifetime of dance, when Lilinoe and Mapuana agreed that Lilinoe was “ready,” she represented the halau in the “Olympics of hula,” the Merrie Monarch Festival. Four thousand fans filled the Edith Kanakaole Stadium, and hundreds of thousands more watched the live telecast. Maybe a million tuned in via the Internet. After researching her own genealogy, Lilinoe presented a hula kahiko, “He Inoa no Kaleimakalii,” composed by her kumu’s husband, Kihei de Silva, about her ancestors’ steadfast resistance to the development of her ancestral land of Kalia, in Waikiki. For her auana, her modern hula, she took a risk by dancing the elegant yet political hula of “Kaulana Na Pua,” a song protesting the overthrow of Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Liliuokalani. No solo female dancer had ever taken on such a politically charged hula. The risk paid off: At the end of the evening, Lilinoe was presented with the title of Miss Aloha Hula 2012.

Aside from hula practice for the 2013 Merrie Monarch competition and the international travel that accompanies the Miss Aloha Hula title, Lilinoe is back to teaching the keiki classes in Kailua, Oahu. You might think that teaching hula to toddlers would be a sophisticated form of baby-sitting. Not so, says Lilinoe. The larger lessons and values that hula teaches can be learned even at such early ages. “One of the biggest benefits is the pride that hula instills. Students learn that they are part of something bigger than themselves. They learn to dance and do it well, and then you see them take ownership of the knowledge. It’s over the moon when you see hula spark that passion!”

In the sunlit halau, Lilinoe reminds the students what her kumu taught her when she was only four years old herself: “Always smile, train like an athlete and dance when you are ready.”