Becoming the Wind

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Kumu Hula Meleana Manuel will present her hālau, Ke ʻOlu Makani o Mauna Loa, at the Merrie Monarch Festival for the first time in June 2021. She graciously agreed to have Ka Wai Ola follow her and her haumāna on this journey. We began covering her story more than year ago, before the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 festival. With the Merrie Monarch now set to resume, we are continuing our coverage. An earlier version of this article was printed in the March 2020 issue of Ka Wai Ola. This is part one of a three-part series.

Beginnings

Photo: Kumu Meleana Manuel
Kumu Meleana Manuel. – Photos: Courtesy

The chilly Puʻulena wind is well known to Hawaiians in Kīlauea, Waiākea and Puna.

It sweeps down from the slopes of Mauna Loa bringing refreshment to the lowlands. This wind stirred songwriter Randy Parker to compose the song “Puʻulena” and his lyrics captured the imagination of Kumu Hula Meleana Manuel.

She envisioned the Puʻulena wind traveling the earth, changing names as it encircled the planet touching other lands and cultures, and then returning to Hawaiʻi bringing renewal. This image of the wind brought to mind the motion of a dancer’s pāʻū skirt and this, in turn, inspired the name of her hālau.

“ʻKe ʻOlu Makani o Mauna Loa,’ literally means ʻThe Gentle Wind of Mauna Loa,’”shared Manuel. “As the Puʻulena wind blows, the dancers’ pāʻū skirts replicate that gentleness, moving and breathing the life of hula from our kūpuna. It transcends through generations with just one gentle move. I wanted this wind that I knew from my home to be the focus of my hālau. We are the makani. And wherever we go, we shall bring a breeze of refreshment.”

This year, for the first time ever, the Puʻulena wind, embodied by the women of Ke ʻOlu Makani o Mauna Loa, will refresh the prestigious stage of the 57th Merrie Monarch Festival.

Although it is the first time that Manuel will present her hālau at the Merrie Monarch, her involvement with the renowned competition dates back the 1970s. As a teenager, Manuel presented lei to participating kumu hula, she later danced in the competition under Kumu Hula Rae Fonseca, and over the years volunteered in various capacities for the week-long festivities.

One year she was asked to portray Queen Kapiʻolani on the Royal Court. An accomplished singer, Manuel has even been asked to sing the national anthem to open the competition.

Ironically, despite her passion for hula, becoming a kumu hula was not something to which Manuel initially aspired. “I just wanted to be a line dancer,” she confessed. “I enjoyed the synchronicity of dancing with my hula sisters.”

Manuel’s path to presenting her hālau at the Merrie Monarch is not what one might expect.

Photo: Meleana Manuel
Smiling shyly in her hula costume at a photo shoot. Manuel was 5 when this picture was taken.

Manuel was adopted at birth by Arthur and Eulela Ulrich, an older couple with no children. Arthur was from Pasadena, Calif., and Eulela was from Lyons, Kan. Both her parents worked for the military as civilians before the Pearl Harbor attack. The Ulrichs raised Manuel in Volcano, where she still lives, and when she was 4 years old, they had her begin hula.

Photo: Manuel performing hulu onstage
A photo from the early days of her hālau. These girls are practicing in Manuel’s garage in Volcano.

Over the years Manuel trained under several kumu, each of whom have shaped her as a dancer and performer. Her kumu have included Lani Wong, Helen Haʻa, Kolani Chartrand, and Kepa Maly. Manuel fell in love with hula and by the time she was 11, she had already performed in Canada and Europe.

As a high school student at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama, Manuel was influenced by kumu like Wayne Chang, Leinaʻala Kalama Heine and Robert Cazimero. Later, after college, Manuel began studying under Fonseca.

“Kumu Rae was young, just starting his hālau in Hilo. He had innovative ideas and strong, difficult movements and motions,” shared Manuel. “Dancing with Kumu Rae was a revelation. Hula was not just a dance. It was life. I lived it, breathed it. It became my passion.”

Her last kumu was Uncle George Naʻope. “He was the most wonderful man,” Manuel recalls. “His witty charm was infectious. His personal style was eclectic, but his hula and knowledge were untouchable. He gave me a new life in hula, a new direction.”

In addition to having their daughter study hula, the Ulrichs gave Manuel another gift – although at the time it did not feel like one. They enrolled her in Japanese language school at the age of 7.

“That was something I was not comfortable with,” said Manuel. “I’m not Japanese and the rest of the class were all Nisei and Sansei, the children of our Japanese neighbors who were trying to keep their culture alive. I had a hard time there because they all wondered why this Hawaiian girl was trying to learn their language.”

In retrospect, Manuel marvels at the foresight of her parents. She continued her study of Japanese through high school and college, becoming fluent in the language. And that opened other doors for her.

Manuel briefly moved from Volcano to Kona in the early 1990s. During that time she took a break from hālau and, with a background in Tahitian dance thanks to Kumu Lani Wong, began dancing in a Polynesian show.

While in Kona, Manuel was offered the opportunity to travel with a small performing group to Japan. At that time, there was great interest in hula in Japan, although the “hula boom” as Manuel calls it, had not started.

That trip to Japan was transformational. The people there were excited by the music, the dance, the costumes and the flowers. Manuel was suddenly beseiged by requests to teach. “Every day somebody was knocking on my hotel room door asking ʻCan you teach us?’” remembers Manuel. She said it became overwhelming, but she could not say no.

Upon returning to Hawaiʻi, Manuel began studying hula under Naʻope. “It was kind of a turning point. I needed to finish so that I could feel right about teaching,” she said.

In the meantime, Manuel started teaching hula informally as a community service to five or six little girls in her garage at her home in Volcano in 1995. “Our community is so rural that kids in our area needed after-school activities. I wanted to help fill this void.”

Photo: Volcano-based members of Ke ʻOlu Makani o Mauna Loa
A pre-pandemic photo of the Volcano-based members of Ke ʻOlu Makani o Mauna Loa in Hilo.

Over the years her classes grew in size. And throughout this time she maintained her ties to Japan, continuing to teach there as well.

By 2003, Manuel had completed her requirements to ʻuniki. However, for reasons Manuel still does not understand, Naʻope did not invite her to complete the process until 2007. “A kumu always thinks differently,” said Manuel, “and you ask no questions.”

So when Naʻope decided it was time, it was a complete surprise. “I had only two weeks to prepare kahiko and ʻauana presentations, find musicians, costumes, lei and everything that went with it,” Manuel recalled, “and it had to be perfect because I was presenting to my kumu.”

The ʻuniki was scheduled on Naʻope’s 80th birthday and Manuel was overwhelmed to learn there would be 350 attending his party – and her ʻuniki – including renowned kumu from across the paeʻāina. “I think back to that time and about this hula ʻtree’ that we all come from and the importance of a kumu continuing his traditions so that the tree never stops growing new branches and leaves. My kumu chose to do this infront of his friends. He wanted witnesses.”

When Manuel was invited in the summer of 2019 to present her hālau at the 2020 Merrie Monarch Festival, she was similarly shocked and overwhelmed. She recounts her utter disbelief upon receiving a phone call from Auntie Luana Kawelu, Merrie Monarch Festival president.

“I answered the phone and Auntie Luana was on the other end. She said, ʻAloha Meleana, this is Auntie Luana. This is your formal invitation to Merrie Monarch.’ I stood there speechless for a long moment…and then I called her back because I thought I heard wrong.”

Being invited to participate in the Merrie Monarch Festival is an extreme honor for any kumu hula.

Says Manuel, “This, to me, is the ultimate test. Can I do everything graciously and appropriately? Have I taught my haumāna to be respectful? Will it show when that makani comes onto the stage? How is this makani going to swirl around the stage for seven minutes, and how elegantly, softly and breathlessly will that makani leave the stage? And will they also leave the audience breathless? That is my goal.”