Of the 13 young women vying Thursday night for the title Miss Aloha Hula, one has the opportunity to become the first, and only, third-generation winner of hula’s premier solo wahine honor.
Kilioulaninuiamamaoho‘opi‘iwahinekapualokeokalaniakea “Kili” Lai will represent Keolalaulani Halau ‘Olapa O Laka under the direction of kumu hula Aloha Dalire, the first Miss Hula — as the title was then called — and Lai’s maternal grandmother. Lai’s mother, Kapua Dalire-Moe, is also a Miss Aloha Hula, as are her aunts, Kaui Dalire and Keola Dalire.
“She’s been dancing, physically, since she was two,” Dalire said of her eldest grandchild. “But I keep telling them they were dancing from when they were in the ‘opu.”
Lai is looking forward to taking the stage at the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multipurpose Stadium. She is keenly aware the Dalire name will intensify the scrutiny under hula’s brightest spotlight.
“To represent my family and my halau this year in the Miss Aloha Hula competition is going to be a journey that I will probably never forget. It’s something I’ve been waiting for,” she said. “I don’t really look at it as a lot of pressure. I understand that I have big shoes to fill and footsteps to follow in, but my family is here to support me. So I just have to do what I’ve been raised to do because I’ve been fortunate to have been raised with hula as a lifestyle. I’ve had over 16 years to train for this, so I’m hoping that I make them proud and I’m able to able to bring my best forward and showcase my family’s traditions and legacy.”
According to Dalire, Lai is prepared for the challenge ahead.
“I’ve been telling her don’t worry about following in big footsteps, as she says. I tell her it’s just time to get out there and do what you’ve been doing for the past 18 years of your life.”
Taking the title home to Kaneohe, Oahu, would be an early birthday present for Lai, who will turn 19 on April 27, three days after the solo competition and the day after the 51st Annual Merrie Monarch Festival’s official end. Dalire wanted to enter Lai in last year’s Miss Aloha Hula competition, but she was a little more than three weeks shy of her 18th birthday, which prohibited her entry under the festival’s rules.
“‘It was kind of disappointing because last year was such a big event, the 50th Merrie Monarch anniversary,” Lai said. “With our halau doing a reunion, it would have been perfect. But it gave me another year to prepare and to train, and when my tutu asked me if I would be willing to represent the halau this year, I was excited.”
Ka‘ena, the westernmost point on the island of Oahu, will be the theme of Lai’s dances.
“When I was younger I was able to go on a huaka‘i with the halau, as a child,” she said. “I vaguely remember but I remember seeing the cliffs of Ka‘ena and the ocean and its waters and the connection to Kaua‘i, the journey crossing the sea that connects all the islands together.”
Her mele kahiko is “Lele Ana O Ka‘ena.”
“It talks about a journey that Hi‘iaka goes on and goes through. You know, when she’s trying to find herself and become the deity that she’s expected to be,” Lai said. “For my kahiko, my tutu and my mom will will be onstage with me. My tutu will be doing the ‘oli for me to come on and my mom will be my ho‘opa‘a. And I’m sure my aunties will be joining.”
The mele ‘auana is “Ka‘ena (Ku‘u Lei Momi)” composed by Samuel K. Halstead, a song with a kaona comparing a lover to a pearl lei. Her singers and musicians for the ‘auana include Robert Cazimero, Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole, Lehua Kalima and Shawn Pimental.
Kanaka‘ole and Kalima are both from Hilo, and Lai will receive other special kokua from the festival’s hometown — kumu hula Nahokuokalani Gaspang of Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani will make lei for Lai and her ‘auana dress will be made from a special print designed by Sig Zane.
Lai, a freshman at Chaminade University of Honolulu and 2012 graduate of Sacred Hearts Academy, will be the first Miss Aloha Hula candidate to dance on Thursday.
“When I found out, a lot of people were going, ‘Gosh, you have to go first?’” she said. “But the funny thing is, I wanted to be somewhere around there. Having the pressure of representing my ‘ohana, I think, taking away the distractions of hearing all the other contestants precede me, I feel more comfortable being in that position.
“I think if I can just bring everything forward that I’ve been born and raised and trained to do, then it’s not going to be about winning and getting an award. The greatest achievement for me, I think, is just being able to represent my family. As long as I can make them proud, that’s all that matters to me.”