The Merrie Monarch Festival’s hula competition officially starts Thursday when a dozen young women vie for hula’s most prestigious solo title, Miss Aloha Hula.
Three Hawaii Island halau are entered in this year’s competition, but only one, Johnny Lum Ho’s Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua, has a wahine representing Moku O Keawe in the solo competition. She’s 22-year-old Kayshlyn Keauli‘imailani Victoria “Auli‘i” De Sa, a senior nursing major at the University of Hawaii at Hilo who works at Hawaiian Style Cafe.
A 2011 graduate of Kamehameha Schools-Hawaii, this is her second time competing solo on hula’s biggest stage. The first time was in 2013, the festival’s golden anniversary. It’s also her third time dancing in Lum Ho’s wahine line at Merrie Monarch. Her first time was in 2010, when she watched her sister, Taysha-Lei Kapuauiokalehuamamomaeole De Sa, place second in Miss Aloha Hula.
“She’s been dancing with me since she was a child,” Lum Ho said. “The last time I entered the competition and she danced, I got a lot of compliments about her. Many people told me she was their favorite. And I thought she did excellent.”
De Sa, the daughter of Tony and Shelley De Sa, thinks she’ll do even better this time.
“I’ve Had A lot of Time to Grow, to Mature”
“I was so young the first time. I turned 19 just before Merrie Monarch,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of time to grow, to mature, to gain confidence. Also, the last time, I was living in Honolulu, so practicing was really hard. I only got to practice once a month with Uncle Johnny, if I was lucky. Other than that, I was in Honolulu practicing with Tasha (Natasha Oda, Miss Aloha Hula 2001) in her backyard, maybe in somebody’s studio. The first time has helped me a lot for this time, but there’s still so much to do until I step up onto the stage.”
The physical nature of her dancing is apparent.
Taking a break during a rehearsal, De Sa’s forehead was dotted with perspiration despite a chilly wind whipping through the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium on a cold, blustery evening.
“Uncle Johnny’s style is, we move all over the stage, everywhere. We don’t just stay in one area,” she explained. “I’m putting that into my dance, working with my body, working on my facial expressions, just trying to put everything together.”
Dancer and Teacher are Excited About Presenting Their Hula Kahiko
For her hula kahiko (ancient hula), De Sa is dancing to a chant about High Chiefess Kapi‘olani — not to be confused with Queen Kapi‘olani, wife of King Kalakaua, the Merrie Monarch — and her conflict with Pele, the goddess of Kilauea volcano.
“Basically, Chiefess Kapi‘olani is a Christian,” De Sa said. “So, her journey to the volcano, to Halema‘uma‘u, she wanted to protest to everybody. She walked 100 miles from Kona to defy Pele and she told everybody along the way, ‘If I take this stone and throw it into the crater, and if I eat these ohelo berries and nothing happens to me, then you need to believe in God. But if something happens to me, then you guys continue to believe in Pele.’ So, she threw the stone into the crater and she ate the ohelo berries and nothing happened to her.”
Lum Ho, who composed the chant, said he and De Sa are both “excited about presenting this dance.”
The Story of the Woodrose
Lum Ho said the original mele he composed for De Sa’s hula ‘auana (modern hula) is inspired by a woodrose he saw at a plant nursery on his way to work at his halau.
“One day, I saw the woodrose hanging from a high tree with the yellow flowers,” he said. “And the fruit is kind of brown. The people let us pick the fruit and the flowers because they said it’s kind of a pest. The flowers, of course, they died. But we had one of our ladies fashion the fruit into her lei.”
De Sa said she doesn’t know for sure but thinks Lum Ho wrote the song for her.
“Everybody in Hilo loves to represent Hilo, and that song is so fitting for me,” she said. “It talks about a girl who goes and picks woodroses from all the vines she can find for a lei. It’s such hard work for her, but in the end she made this beautiful lei, and once she put it on, she felt like the most beautiful girl in the world. And, in the dance, my dad is actually going to give me the lei. When it comes to my dad, he brings confidence to me. He’s definitely my No. 1 supporter in everything I do.”
Miss Aloha Hula Contestants “Bring Their A Game” to the Stage
While the image of Miss Aloha Hula is one of beauty and grace, the other side of the coin is one that embodies the passion of competition. As De Sa, whose father is the baseball coach at Hilo High School, noted, “Everybody brings their A game.”
The second time was the charm for last year’s Miss Aloha Hula, Jasmine Kaleihiwa Dunlap, who was second runner-up in 2013. Her halau, Oahu’s Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela, under the direction of na kumu hula Kunewa Mook and Kau‘ionalani Kamana‘o, will try to make it two in a row, represented by ‘Aulani Kamea‘i‘omakamae Latorre-Holt.
Another Miss Aloha Hula contestant who might be the odds-on favorite is Ashley “Kili” Lai, who’s vying to become the only third-generation Miss Aloha Hula.
She’s the granddaughter of the late, legendary kumu hula Aloha Dalire, the first Miss Hula, as the title was called then; daughter of Kapua Dalire-Moe, Miss Aloha Hula 1991; and niece of Kau‘i Dalire, Miss Aloha Hula 1992, and Keola Dalire, Miss Aloha Hula 1999.
Lai is dancing for her mother’s Halau Ka Liko Pua O Kalaniakea of Kaneohe, Oahu. She was first runner-up two years ago, when she danced for her grandmother’s Keolalaulani Halau ‘Olapa O Laka in Aloha Dalire’s final Merrie Monarch.
“For me and Kili, it’s our second time. She wants to represent her grandma, and I want to represent my kumu. We’re both representing people who are very important to us,” De Sa said.
“I Just Want My Dance to Touch Somebody”
De Sa said the pressure of competing for hula’s most coveted individual honor at the Merrie Monarch Festival’s golden jubilee was intense.
“It was the 50th anniversary. Everybody wanted to win,” she said. “I believe that everything happens for a reason. That night, when my name didn’t get called, I was sad. I just had a lot of emotions going through me, but I specifically remember Uncle Johnny telling me to never mind crying because it wasn’t going for me. And that’s true, because if I didn’t win, it wasn’t my time. It was somebody else’s time. But I was grateful to have that experience. I thought it was going to be our last Merrie Monarch. Just to have that experience, representing Uncle Johnny Lum Ho at Miss Aloha Hula, was a big deal for me.”
And this time?
“I just want my dance to touch somebody in this room,” De Sa said in the stadium. “If it’s everybody, that’s good. If it’s just one person, then fine, so be it.”
Miss Aloha Hula Contestants 2016
Jazzlyn Kawailani Y.P. Kaleohano
Kumu Mark Keali‘i Ho‘omalu
Academy of Hawaiian Arts
Kamie-Lei Kahealani Yoshiko Fujiwara
Kumu Napua Greig
Halau Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka
Brandi Nalani Morales
Kumu William Kahakuleilehua Haunu‘u “Sonny” Ching and Lopaka Igarta-De Vera
Halau Na Mamo O Pu‘uanahulu
Ashley Leina‘ala Juan
Kumu Hi‘ilei Maxwell-Juan
Pukalani Hula Hale
Christie Mariko Keahonui Kimura
Kumu Haunani and ‘Iliahi Paredes
Ceriann Akemi Moana Espiritu
Kumu Raquel Dudoit
Moana’s Hula Halau
Kayli Ka‘iulani Carr
Kumu Robert Ke‘ano Ka‘upu IV
and Lono Padilla
Kayshlyn Keauli‘imailani Victoria De Sa
Kumu Johnny Lum Ho
Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua
Brylyn Noelani Aiwohi
Kumu Leina‘ala Pavao Jardin
Halau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leina‘ala
Ashley K. Lai
Kumu Kapua Dalire-Moe
Halau Ka Liko Pua O Kalaniakea
Ecstasy Jetta Laverne Kamakalikolehua Ligon
Kumu Tracie and Keawe Lopes
Ka La ‘Onohi Mai O Ha‘eha‘e
‘Aulani Kamea‘i‘omakamae Latorre-Holt
Kumu Kau‘ionalani Kamana‘o and Kunewa Mook
Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela
For more information about the Merrie Monarch Festival, visit www.hawaii.com/tag/merrie-monarch-festival/.