This year marks Halau Hula Lani Ola’s debut in the Merrie Monarch Festival, but kumu hula Puanani Jung’s roots go back to the prestigious hula competition’s beginning and further — back to King David Kalakaua, the Merrie Monarch himself.
Her mother is Puanani Alama, at 83 the last living judge from the first Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition, and her aunt is Leilani Alama, an early Merrie Monarch judge who died of cancer April 4 at age 88.
Puanani Alama was one of the hula masters consulted by the late Merrie Monarch patriarch Uncle George Na‘ope before the hula competition was started.
“She and Uncle George had been friends very, very early on in their hula careers, before either one was as well known as they are today,” Jung said. “When Uncle was in Honolulu, they lived like brother and sister, way before the explosion of Merrie Monarch and all that, when they were very, very young. She and Uncle shared a lot of hula together. I remember her going to his classes to teach his class and him coming to my mom’s studio to share with us.”
Leilani Alama opened the Alama Hula Studio, the longest continuously operating active hula school, in 1943. Puanani Alama continues to teach hula at the Waialae Avenue location in Honolulu’s Kaimuki neighborhood. Both taught their own classes in the same building, their studios separated by a hallway.
The Alama sisters were honored in 2012 by the Hula Preservation Society with the I Ola Mau Ka Hula award for their contributions to the art. Gov. Neil Abercrombie declared Oct. 6, 2012, as “Puanani and Leilani Alama Day.”
The sisters were taught hula kahiko, or ancient hula, from a very young age by respected kumu hula Tutu Hina Hina and Uncle Maui.
“When my mom was a child, there were not a whole lot of halau,” Jung said. “And her teachers were not family. Tutu Hina Hina and Uncle Maui, they brought her into their home after school, and they were a wealth of knowledge. … They knew my mom had a gift and she was special. So she was chosen by a lot of people to share their hula with.”
Both sisters became professional dancers by the mid-1930s, before they reached their teens. When Leilani was 12 and Puanani was 7, they were chosen to dance with kumu hula Emma Kahelelani Bishop and Katie Nakaula, who had been a dancer in King Kalakaua’s court.
“My mom danced from when she was very young and was working at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel when she was 11,” Jung said. “My auntie opened her studio first and my mom continued to dance professionally and teach at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. And then later on she opened up her studio.”
Both Alama sisters taught hula in the same building, a hallway separating their studios, and Jung was a student of both.
“Actually, my first hula teacher was my aunt, because my aunt taught me from when I was 18 months,” she said. “My mom wouldn’t teach me until I was seven years old. Aunty Lei always taught the small ones, while my mom didn’t teach them until they were 6 or 7. That’s kind of a family joke.”
Jung, a graduate of Punahou School in Honolulu and Purdue University, was a successful construction engineer in California before opening her halau in Laguna Hills, a southern Orange County community, 16 years ago.
“I had a great career but when hula is in your blood, it doesn’t go away,” Jung said. “My mom told me that I would know when the time is right. Because growing up around hula and in a hula family, you know the commitment of having a halau. So I was very aware of not committing of something you’re not ready for. But I knew the time was right. My mom was up here and we had a discussion about it. And in 1998, I opened my doors on April 1.”
Jung received her ‘uniki, hula’s formal graduation that allows one to become a kumu hula, from her mother, but said that her mom encouraged her to pursue her academic degree first.
“She said you are ‘uniki’d and you are prepared, but I want you to get your diploma and after that you can do whatever you want,” Jung said. “She was a very strict and disciplined mother but when I started to teach she was very open with me and allowed me a lot of space to see me for myself.”
It’s an approach Jung will likely take with her own teenage twin daughters, Ku‘upua and Ku‘ulei, who won the keiki Miss Hula titles in 2011 and 2012, respectively, at Southern Calfornia’s E Hula Mau competition.
Although Jung has been to the Merrie Monarch many times as a spectator, neither her mother nor her aunt brought their halau to compete, so she has never danced in the competition.
“That stage is so much bigger than anything my haumana have ever experienced and we have to be prepared,” she said. “I remember blocking the whole stage out for them for the first time on a gym floor. And I told them, ‘OK stand right here and look around. This is your stage.’ And it really hit them, the magnitude of what we were about to undertake.”
Jung, whose halau will dance in the wahine group competition, said her hula kahiko will honor the islands’ last reigning monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani.
“I wanted to do this mele because my grandmother’s family is from Kona, Honaunau and Ho‘okena,” she said. “And so, I wanted to honor our family lineage and take our mele to the Big Island. This Lili‘uokalani chant honors her and also places her on the Big Island. So it’s more of an honorific mele inoa, a praise chant for Lili‘u.”
The hula ‘auana will be Kona Kai ‘Opua, which Jung described as a tribute to her aunt.
“I remember her singing it many, many times and my memory of her voice,” she said, adding that the song is also dedicated to her mom and the Alama ‘ohana in Kona.
Jung described her mother’s and her aunt’s hula styles as “a little different but essentially the same.”
“I consider myself kind of a blend of the two and I want to perpetuate that,” she said. “My main focus in going to the Merrie Monarch is to showcase and perpetuate the Alama hula stylings, and I tell my girls that. We want to make my mom and my aunt proud. We want the world to see the Alama hula stylings. It’s the first time that it’s going to be danced as a halau on the stage. We are the first representation of the hula. So we need to make sure we stay true to that and that’s my goal, to say that the Alama hula style is alive and well, that we hope you enjoy it, and to do our line proud.”