After 11 Years, Molokai Dances in Merrie Monarch
Molokai hula dancers and vendors spent months rehearsing and crafting with a specific purpose in mind: sharing the stories of Molokai at the 52nd Merrie Monarch Festival.
After a decade-long absence from hula’s premiere annual event, Moana’s Hula Halau traveled to Hilo for the weeklong hula and cultural festival from April 5-11, along with 10 Molokai businesses. Twenty-four halau from Hawaii and the mainland came to compete in solo and group competitions, bringing their own unique take on Hawaii’s renowned method of storytelling.
“It’s not about being pretty,” said Kumu Hula Valerie Dudoit-Temahaga of Moana’s Hula Halau. “… It’s not about the beauty of being on the stage. It’s all about dancing and your culture and how much you know about what you’re doing.”
Road to Hilo
Miss Aloha Hula contestant Larriley Kehaulani Kaleonahe Kekahuna Rawlins of Molokai said their halau practiced twice a week, sometimes for four hours at a time. In between, halau members prepared kukui nut lei, hemmed skirts and performed at fundraising shows.
As a whole, the halau’s 28 traveling members had to raise an estimated $50,000 for airfares, lodging and other expenses, said Dudoit-Temahaga. She and 30-year Kumu Hula Raquel Dudoit also worked hard to prepare the girls mentally and spiritually, including taking a boat to the backside of Molokai to fully experience the places from their songs.
“For some of us including myself, it was the first time we’ve ever been behind the island,” said Tarrah Lee. “… When we talk about Kahiwa Falls [in our oli], how grand it is, you really don’t grasp that until you see it in person.”
Raquel’s niece and 2009 Miss Aloha Hula winner Henohea Kane split time between Molokai and her home on Maui to help mentor the halau. Kane had the group go on a month-long kapu, a dietary cleanse that barred frosted sugars, shrimp, and he`e, among other things. Rawlins said she stifled moments of cravings by keeping her hula sisters in mind.
“We all felt good inside, we all felt clean, we all felt stronger together,” she said. “… Dancing for as long as I’ve danced, we never had this bond until kapu started and Merrie Monarch started.”
Under the Lights
Six months of rehearsal boiled down to a matter of minutes on stage. With the Miss Aloha Hula competition on Thursday, Rawlins took her first ever steps onto the Merrie Monarch stage.
“It was one major adrenaline rush. I was semi nervous, but I wasn’t scared. I was makaukau,” said Rawlins. “…You just lose yourself for that whole seven minutes you perform. I honestly don’t remember what I did.”
Her kahiko performance expressed the people’s love for Queen Emma Kaleleonalani. Rawlins said Kane chose the perfect song for the `auana she performed later that night. The piece, composed by Dudoit’s relative Zelie Duvauchelle, took Rawlins on a mental journey around her favorite childhood spots on Molokai.
Though Rawlins didn’t win, fellow Miss Aloha Hula contestant Noelani Dudoit, who has family ties to Molokai, finished third overall.
On Friday, Molokai’s dancers, decked in billowing white and tan and crowned with haku lei, performed a group kahiko that commemorated Queen Emma’s travels throughout Hawaii and scenic stops on Molokai. On Saturday, for the group `auana and final night of competition, the dancers donned Molokai green for a romantic mele that suggested the love affair between the god Ku and goddess Hina, mother of Molokai in Hawaiian lore.
“We were looking for anything to do with Molokai,” said Raquel. “We listened to different types of music about Molokai and I fell in love with Wehiwehi Hina [from the group `auana]. I loved the melody, I loved the song, I loved what it was portraying.”
With each swaying movement and perfectly synchronized step, dancers brought the legacy of their halau founder, the late Moana Dudoit, with them on stage. It was the first time the halau had attended the Merrie Monarch since the passing of Moana in 2013. Raquel said the girls showed few hints of nerves and attributed this to Moana’s absence.
“It was different. We didn’t have Aunty Moana there but we felt like she was with us,” said Raquel. “That’s why I think they were so calm. … They felt that peace of mind on stage.”
A Labor of Love
Off the stage, 10 Molokai vendors put on a show of their own in the festival’s craft fair
For Kahulu Peltier-Yaw, who creates feather artwork for her business Keaohulu, it was a chance to make a statement in solidarity with protests on nearby Mauna Kea, where plans for the so-called Thirty Meter Telescope have spurred local and global outcry.
Peltier-Yaw’s handcrafted kahili pa`a lima and kahili hairpicks included white feathers representing Mauna Kea goddess Poliahu and red feathers for modern-day Hawaii.
“It was so powerful, it was so spiritual, it was draining,” said Peltier-Yaw of the movement she witnessed on Hawaii Island, where many Molokai residents are also participating in protests aimed at halting the telescope construction on what’s considered sacred ground.
Owners of Molokai art and apparel business Kupu A`e spent two months making an inventory that included an estimated 380 pareos, 400 scarves and 100 ties.
“We tried to make sure that every piece was original and true to our vision of what we want to be perceived as,” said artist and part-owner Kala`e Tangonan.
The pull of Kupu A`e, explained Tangonan, is that no two items are alike. The business doubled its profits from last year’s Merrie Monarch.
Clothing store Something for Everybody wove lore into its “aina-inspired, aloha-driven” Na Mea Molokai line with locally-made decorated dresses, tops, scarves by Maile Naehu and jewelry by Henohea Linker.
Na Mea Molokai artists produced Merrie Monarch-edition wear with sayings such as “hula in our koko,” and images depicting the laua`e fern, the kinolau of hula goddess Laka. New Na Mea Molokai artist Teon Simmons reused her grandmother’s 30-year-old hand-carved silkscreens to create festival-inspired apparel that included lava flow designs, explained Something for Everybody shop owner Wailani Tanaka.
“People loved [the products] and we kept on hearing, ‘That’s so different,’” she said. “… Everything that we sold had a story and that’s really what they buy into.”