Hula is an art in which lineage and legacy are of paramount importance, and both Hilo halau competing in this year’s Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition have impeccable hula pedigrees.
One, Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani, is the school founded by the late kumu hula Rae Fonseca, a student of hula master Uncle George Na‘ope, co-founder of hula’s premiere event. It continues to thrive under the direction of kumu hula Nahokuokalani Gaspang, a student of Fonseca’s.
The other, Halau Na Lei Hiwahiwa ‘O Ku‘ualoha, has the same hula bloodlines. Kumu hula Sammye-Ann Ku‘ualoha Young was also a student of Fonseca’s. She started her halau in 2008 after receiving her ‘uniki, hula’s graduation ceremony, from Fonseca the year before.
Six women from Young’s halau will dance in this year’s wahine group competition, including Young’s 19-year-old daughter, Sable Marie Keffer-Young. Another of her haumana, Melia Kau‘ikeonalani Carmen Taganas, will also dance in the solo wahine competition for title of Miss Aloha Hula.
It will be the halau’s debut appearance on hula’s most prominent stage.
“After kumu passed away, there was no hiding behind his apron strings. I just wanted to show my love of hula,” said Young, who was 12 when she became Fonseca’s student.
“I spoke to him before he passed and I told him that in the future I would love to enter the Merrie Monarch. And he said to me, ‘Sammye, when you do, I will not compete, but I will mentor you.’ And then he passed. So I asked kumu Kapi‘olani Ha‘o if she would mentor me. She said, ‘I would love to. It would be an honor to do that for you.’ And in the last year, she has been there so many times and pulled me out of a rut when I was stressed out. And she is a big part of me and my halau getting to the stage in this year’s Merrie Monarch.”
The wahine group number is “Aia la o Pele ka wahine ‘ai Honua” by Hana Pau.
“She wrote this chant in 2004 for Kamehameha Schools Hawaii Campus for their ho‘ike, which they asked me to participate in,” Young said. “And after this ho‘ike, as a gift, she gave me this chant, because it’s the first one that I’d ever choreographed. … It speaks of the destruction of Puna from the lava flows and the earthquakes and the natural elements that happen during a major catastrophe.”
The ‘auana will be “Na Mauna Ho‘oheno,” performed by Kawika Alfiche and Kawaimaluhia.
“It speaks of the five mountains on this island and his travels with his halau when they came from San Francisco to all these different mountains and what he saw at that time,” Young said. “This is his first time that one of his meles has been featured at Merrie Monarch. So he’ll be coming in from San Francisco to sing it.”
Alfiche, kumu hula of San Francisco’s Halau ‘O Keikiali‘i, was also a student of Fonseca’s who received his ‘uniki at the same time as Young, Gaspang, fellow Hawai‘i Island kumu hula Emery Aceret and Lori Lei Shirakawa, and Leina‘ala Jardin of Kalaheo, Kaua‘i, whose Halau Ka Lei Mokihana O Leina‘ala will also compete.
Young said that she is very proud of her students.
“You know, we’ve been working on this for a year, not knowing where to go and how to start,” she said. “It’s a leap we had to take and it’s been an adventure for myself, as well. They’re just phenomenal students.
“My expectations for Merrie Monarch are that we do our community proud, that we do my lineage and my legacy proud. That is the main goal. As far as my halau growth, I’d like to see it grow in numbers, but more importantly, in the significance of our culture. And if I can instill in them, whether it’s by me or by another kumu that we bring in for their forte, to teach students about the things of their culture, I think that will make them a better dancer, regardless of whether they’re Hawaiian or not.”
The most important piece of advice from Fonseca that she has passed along to her charges?
“Breathe and listen for my voice. That’s exactly what my kumu used to say,” Young replied.
“Everything I know all comes from him, because he taught me to love hula. That’s what I want to share with my students, the love of hula, as he did with us,” she said. “Actually, I think the most stressful part is living up to his legacy. My kumu has left such an impression on the hula world and on his students. And he has always kept us to us a high standard on the way we perform and on our costumes and that is what I want to maintain. I want to make sure that the standards of hula that he instilled in me are perpetuated.”