At dusk the women gather quietly on the rocky shore of Hilo Bay. There, in the shadow of Maunakea, night arrives early. As the women wait, the Akua moon rises and they are visited by a sister wind. Then softly, slowly, a single voice lifts above the silence as their kumu offers an oli requesting permission to enter the dark waters. The women add their own voices and together their chant is clear and strong. The oli now complete, the women step silently into the sea as one, immersing themselves into the icy water for hiʻuwai, a cleansing ceremony to wash away emotional, mental and spiritual distractions. So begins the season of kapu to which the women will submit as part of their preparation as dancers.
With only a few weeks to go before the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, Kumu Hula Meleana Manuel and the women of Ke ʻOlu Makani o Mauna Loa are laser-focused on preparing for their debut at the hula world’s most prestigious event. Observing kapu, or restrictions, is part of that process.
“Every kumu has different ways of preparing, including specific ceremonial rites,” explains Manuel. “Kapu, specifically, requires great restraint. There are so many daily temptations put before us, so how do we concentrate on moving together on the same path towards our goal? By observing kapu. We restrict ourselves from eating certain foods, doing certain things or going to certain places that will distract us.”
Some of the kapu the women observe represent personal indulgences that are unhealthy or that take too much of their time. For example, they might decide to cut out sugar, coffee or recreational shopping. Other kapu are traditional. Some kumu observe all traditional kapu while others just observe a specific few. However, once the kumu has made her decision, adhering to these kapu is non-negotiable for the dancers. “One kapu in particular is pork. And squid is out. Bananas are out. Certain fish are also kapu,” said Manuel. “And there are very interesting reasons for each kapu.”
One example that Manuel shared was the kapu forbidding consumption of squid. “Squid are very slippery. So tradition has it that if you eat squid it will cause your memory to slip.”
The holistic nature of the hālau’s preparation is all-encompassing. Beyond the mental, emotional and spiritual preparation reflected in practices such as hiʻuwai or kapu, both kumu and dancers are pushing themselves intellectually and physically while still managing their own work and family kuleana. Preparation includes research assignments that help the haumāna to learn more about the mele to which they will be dancing, with each dancer tasked to look for specific things. “Once they gathered the information, they came together and shared what they discovered,” said Manuel. The hālau’s research included a huakaʻi to Oʻahu in 2019 to meet with the haku mele of their ʻauana number, and to visit some of the places that inspired his song.
With the Merrie Monarch Festival now imminent, and pandemic guidelines relaxed to allow groups of up to 25 gather, the hālau is making up for lost time with four weekly three-hour practices – while observing masking, distancing and sanitation protocols in addition to all the normal hula protocols.
At this point it is about achieving perfection. Precision movement in performance is a goal for every hālau. In any hula competition, judges look first at the dancers’ footwork before hand motions or facial expressions. “Each hula step has a meaning and, if not executed correctly, the meaning changes. We don’t have the right to do that,” Manuel emphasizes. “For us to perpetuate that story, everybody has to do the same thing because each placement of the foot has meaning and value. If we don’t execute it correctly the value is lost. It just takes one person…and the whole story will be different.”
The importance of kākou for the dancers is paramount. “We are resetting everything in order to put our very best on the stage. We are learning how to breathe together. Breathe kākou. Hā. Once we start to breathe together, the motions, the energy, the emotions come out and we continue from there.”
How a dancer breathes together with her hula sisters is key to being selected for the dance line. Simply being in the performance class is no guarantee that a dancer will step onto the stage. Technical skill is important, of course, but for Manuel that is secondary to the heart.
“My haumāna all know the dance motions; I’m looking for those who know the emotions,” she explains. “Iʻm looking for those who can show me their dedication. Their commitment. Their attitude. Those are the ones. Those are the ones that I can work with. You cannot just be dancing hula and wanting to be on the stage. You have to be hula. That’s all. You have to be hula.”
Along with the emotional, mental, spiritual and physical aspects of preparation, there are costumes to be imagined and then sewn, and adornments to decide upon and create.
“Costumes should reflect the era of the song that you choose,” Manuel said decidedly. “After you’ve done your research and learned what the dresses looked like back then, you try to replicate that style as closely as possible.”
Color and symbolism are important too. For example, a kahiko number that references the ocean could be represented by a blue pāʻū skirt paired with a white top to suggest the crest of a wave. When designing costumes for her dancers, Manuel uses both her imagination and intuition.
“You have to have integrity with what you are doing,” she said. “For example, if you are doing a Pele chant you would not wear blue. You would absolutely use red and orange colors to symbolize her. Pele’s sister, Nāmakaokahaʻi, was from the ocean and they had a falling out so it would be rude and disrespectful to wear blue. Or if the song talks about lehua, we’re not going to wear purple.”
Similar thought processes go into the selection of adornments for the dancers. “The items you choose to put in your lei and kūpeʻe also come from the song itself,” said Manuel. “What does the mele speak of? Where does it take place? Up in the mountains? Or near the sea? You want to choose something that complements the mele. It’s all about creating adornments that make sense according to the words of the mele and the intentions of the writer.”
In addition to honoring the story being told by the haku mele, selection of the flora used for the lei is steeped in symbolism. Palapalai fern, for example, is representative of Laka, the patron goddess of hula, and is often incorporated into the lei and kūpeʻe used for hula kahiko.
Collection of the items required for the lei, along with lei-making itself, can be tedious, time-consuming work.
“Going out together as a hālau and collecting the different items needed for our lei is very important,” Manuel notes. After they gather what they need, they sit together to clean everything in preparation for the lei-making process. However, while all of her haumāna know how to make lei, uniformity of the finished lei is critical, and so Manuel has a team of lei-makers from within her hālau who will take on the kuleana of actually fashioning the lei that the dancers will wear at the Merrie Monarch.
“But we are only borrowers of this beautiful foliage,” cautions Manuel. “When we are pau they will be carefully taken back to the forest as a mahalo for allowing us to use them to fashion our lei. We always recycle our lei and return them to the earth to help regenerate new liko and fern. Lei should never go into a rubbish can.”
As the Merrie Monarch approaches, energy levels are elevated and it is difficult for Manuel or her dancers to contain their excitement. “I’m very nervous, but yet I’m so excited. You have to understand what it means just to be invited. It was an overwhelming feeling when the official roster of Merrie Monarch participants was posted, and I saw my name and the name of our hālau and I thought to myself ʻthis is for real.’”