SALT POND — Hula is more than a dance or an art form for Pakala resident Hiwalei Aliser: It is the lifeblood of the Hawaiian culture.
“For me, it means perpetuating our culture,” said Aliser, who will be attending the 54th annual Merrie Monarch Festival on the Big Island with 28 other members of Halau Ka Lei Mokihana O Leina‘ala.
“We’re very blessed to have things like the Merrie Monarch where we can go and show everybody what being Hawaiian really is, sharing our stories.”
The sole halau from Kauai to attend the event, Halau Ka Lei Mokihana O Leina‘ala, will perform starting Thursday with Aliser competing in the Miss Aloha Hula; then on Friday for the Group Hula Kahiko; and conclude Saturday with the Group Hula ‘Auana.
“Preparations this year have been so intriguing,” said Kumu Hula Leina‘ala Pavao Jardin. “The Merrie Monarch or any mele that we do is like a novel. You discover this mele or the mele discovers you and then I dive into it and research. We study together — me and my students.”
The Merrie Monarch Festival is a nonprofit started by King David Kalakaua, whose vision was the perpetuate Hawaiian culture and traditions.
This year 23 halau are participating, with 10 individuals dancing in the Miss Aloha Hula: 20 halau will feature wahine (women) perfomers, while nine have kane (men). Some halau house kane and wahine; others exclusively showcase one gender. Awards are given out in the Wahine Kahiko, Kane Kahiko, Wahine ‘Auana, Kane ‘Auana and Miss Aloha Hula categories.
Ka Lei Mokihana O Leina‘ala will be attending its sixth Merrie Monarch.
Last year, the Kauai halau’s Brylyn Noelani ‘Aiwohi was first-runner up for Miss Aloha Hula and ended up taking the Hawaiian Language Award. In 2015, Jayna Marie Kau‘iokalanimalie Shaffer was third runner up in the same category.
”The Merrie Monarch for me is an opportunity for our halau to raise our bar just a little more and strive for a little more excellence,” Pavao Jardin said. “It’s an opportunity to teach my haumana aloha, respect, working with people.”
On Friday, the halau was at Salt Pond Beach Park for a traditional Hawaiian cleansing ceremony, hi‘uwai, where they immersed themselves into the water and offered chants and prayer.
“We go into the water to bless our minds, our souls, our bodies,” Pavao Jardin said. “The girls have worked so hard in preparing and training. This is just another opportunity for them to cleanse their minds, their souls and just be ready to go.”
Rather than feeling nervous to perform in her first Miss Aloha Hula, Aliser is excited to showcase the hard work she and her halau sisters have gone through since they started practice for the event in November.
“My generation and the generation after me we’ll continue to dance hula and keep the Hawaiian culture alive,” Aliser said. “I’ve just been lucky to be a part of a group of just amazing girls. We’ve been working really hard. We practice almost every day. I’m excited to show everybody my hard work.”
In her kahiko, Aliser be dancing about Kauai on Thursday. In her ‘auana, she’ll be dancing about the town of her kupuna — Hau‘ula on Oahu.
“I hope when I’m there at Hilo, I can bring Kauai and Oahu to life and invite (the crowd) to go to these places with me,” she said. “I’m really excited to honor my family and also honor my home here now on Kauai. It will be a really good experience.”
While hula is a dance, it’s also a medium in which stories of old Hawaii and today are alive, Pavao Jardin said.
“In our ‘auwana, we’re doing a beautiful song, ‘Ke Ala Laua‘e,’” she said. “It talks about the abundant laua‘e fern that grows near Mount Makana up north and how sweet it smells. It’s almost reminiscent of maile, maybe even stronger at times.”
In the group competition Friday, the ladies will showcase in dance the menehune of Kauai.
“We know of Menehune Fishpond, Menehune Ditch and all these various things that are menehune,” Pavao Jardin said. “We’ve been blessed to receive a manuscript that was written in the early 1800s. We’re going to be bringing that to the Merrie Monarch stage.”
The Merrie Monarch has been an beautiful journey for the girls, she said.
“It’s one that takes great sacrifice. All of them are either mothers or students. Some of them missed prom to get into Merrie Monarch,” she said. “This is a tough world we live in at times. If we can learn to be aloha with each other and work well with others … we’re all in one event and we all love the same thing: The hula.”
The Merrie Monarch Festival will begin live streaming on its website at 8 p.m. Wednesday, with the Miss Aloha Hula to commence 6 p.m. Thursday.