In 1874, King David Kaläkaua came to the throne and he initiated a
resurgence of Hawaiian performing arts, including the hula. He asserted,
“Hula is the language of the heart, and therefore the heartbeat of the
Hawaiian people.” As such, he was known as the “Merrie Monarch.”
Each year around Easter, the Big Island of Hawaiÿi hosts a week-long
celebration named in his honor, the Merrie Monarch Festival. For this
televised Olympics of hula, 20 esteemed hälau from all over the world are
invited to perform in Hilo’s packed stadium, and one of those privileged
to attend is the hälau formed by Leinaÿala.
Leinaÿala began practicing hula at the age of three. Upon graduating
high school, she attended the University of Hawaiÿi where she studied
with hula master Rae Fonseca. After four years of dancing under
Fonseca, during which she was chosen to perform in the Miss Aloha
Hula Competition at the Merrie Monarch Festival and won the prized
Hawaiian Language Award, she decided to return to Kauaÿi. Leinaÿala
shares her admiration for Rae, “I knew I could never dance for anyone
else,” and with his blessing and guidance, she created her own hula school.
Now, 17 years later, Leinaÿala’s hälau has nearly 200 students with
some as young as three and others around 80. She is also delighted to
have passed on a love and talent for hula to her daughter, aged nine, who
won the coveted annual Oÿahu title prize at the Queen Liliÿuokalani Keiki
Hula Competition. “I was proud because she was my student and also my
There are two main categories of hula dancing. Ancient hula is called
Hula Kahiko and was practiced before Western influences arrived on
Hawaiÿi’s shores. In this form, chant is the only vocalized sound. Ai
Kahiko means “in the ancient style” and refers to hula written during the
20th and 21st centuries that incorporates Hula Kahiko’s stylistic elements.
By contrast, the Hula ‘Auana has assimilated Western influences of
melodious harmony and instrumentation and uses mele (song). It is often
accompanied by string instruments or the ‘ukulele. Leinaÿala’s hälau
performs both styles.
As a non-native Hawaiian resident, I am curious about the group’s
name and its meaning. Leinaÿala tells me, “During a student’s formal
graduation, a hula teacher decides if they are ready to teach hula and
train others. If so, the teacher gives them the name for their school.
It’s a special tradition. Ka Lei means “the lei (garland)” and mokihana
is Kauaÿi’s flower, which is actually a berry. You have to hike into the
mountains to get it, but it’s worth it as it’s very fragrant. Each mokihana
represents a student, and like the special fragrance of the flower, you
never forget them.”
This reverence for tradition is reflected in the protocols the hälau
observes during classes. The kumu hula waits in the practice room while
students ask for permission to join her in chant. Only when they have
received her chanted response can they enter. They then say a prayer to
create a spiritual sense of peace. At the end of class, they chant again to
close the practice and during the session there is total focus. Leinaÿala has
a strong belief in revering the Hawaiian language. “When I give them a
new mele or chant, I first deliver it in Hawaiian and then they translate it
and we discuss it.” She is proud to share that many hula dancers are fluent
in the Hawaiian language.
With this love of language comes a deep appreciation for the land.
Last year for the Merrie Monarch Festival, her dancers told a story about
an ancient Kauaian village, Kaneiolouma. Around 600 years ago this