When Belle Gomes was named Miss Hula Girl Teen, she was pleased, of course.
But not for the reasons you might think.
This first-time pageant at Waikiki in November by Johnny Kai Productions was about what Gomes believes is so important.
Hula, to Gomes, is not so much about beauty and grace as it is about telling the stories of her past, of former rulers who set Hawaii on its course that led to today. It’s an expression of who she is, where’s she’s been and where she’s gong.
“This was about Hawaii. I wanted to do it because it was Hawaiian-based competition. I liked it because not many people know about Hawaiian culture,” the 16-year-old said. “I wanted to push that and let it be known that Hawaiian culture is something to learn about — it’s good to learn about our queens and kings.”
Gomes attends Kanuikapono Charter School in Anahola, which emphasizes tradition to its 200 K-12 students.
Kanuikapono Charter School has a cultured-based focus throughout its program.
Her mother, Calveena Pua Gomes, is the school’s kumu hula and comes from a line of those who study and perform hula and “deliver what it truly is.”
“Our native practices are instilled in the kids from a young age and throughout their school years,” she said.
Her daughter, she said, has been dancing since she could walk.
“Hula is a lifestyle,” Calveena said.
The Nov. 16 contest, described as a “fresh, new hula experience,” with three other girls was what she called, “the next step to bring Hawaii out to the world and hopefully correct a lot of things people think of Hawaii that are not true.”
Contestants were scored in several areas, including dance, dress and interview.
“A lot of times, culture in the school is overlooked and not really advocated for,” Calveena said. “Thus, a lot of times they take that program out of the school first. But they should know it creates confident kids who actually look forward to their future and actually become successful.”
Calveena said hula helps keiki to learn about who they are, which is critical for their future. Because to succeed, you need to know where you came from and how you got to this point in life.
“Education is important because it can take you to places other things can’t,” she said. “But you have to identify who you are, and once you know who you are, you know where you’re going in life.”
“You’re always a life learner,” she said. “If you want to be somebody you want to go somewhere, you’ve got to wake up and pay attention.”
Winning the Miss Hula Girl Teen title (for which she took home a trophy and won a shopping spree) was a learning experience before, during and after for Belle.
To prepare for it, she studied the life of Hawaii’s beloved Queen Emma — some say Belle strongly resembles Emma Kalanikaumaka‘amano Kaleleonalani Na‘ea Rooke, as well as sharing her style, grace and charm.
Belle learned in-depth about the history of Hawaii, which she holds dear to her heart.
Winning the pageant, her mom said, was a bonus.
“To me, she was already a winner,” Calveena said. “In the pageant, she gained knowledge she wouldn’t have unless she researched it. I’m very proud of that.”
“Now, she can advocate for these programs and how important is it for the kids of Hawaii and maybe we can get more kids to come out and compete,” she said.
Calveena praised Johnny Kai Productions for “uplifting this generation and trying to connect them with the things that are real within their own selves.”
The festival included educational and cultural seminars and interactive exchanges with the local hula community.
“I applaud the man for doing this competition and bringing culture to the forefront and maybe to the world,” she said.
They had only a short time to raise money for the trip and through an online campaign, pulled it off.
“If not for that, we would not have made it out there,” Calveena said. “The Kauai community came out so strong, it made me cry, how they supported her.”
The invitation to the the 2018 Hula Girl Festival came to Kanuikapono Charter School in October. When Belle learned about it, she was all in.
“Mom, I’m doing this,” she said.
She was proud to represent Kauai and topped each category. Her gown was purple, Kauai’s color.
When she danced, she said she danced with the “Emmalani connection” in her heart and mind. It wasn’t just dancing — it was hula. It was an expression of her life and a chance to tell a story of her past.
She did it well.
Throughout the night, she said things “were going great.”
She overcame nervousness and settled in, feeling a sense of pride in knowing who she was and what she stood for.
“I like the way I felt,” she said, smiling.
While she had only been in one prior hula competition, she said the 2018 Hula Girl Festival, how well it went and how wonderful she felt throughout, has bolstered her strength looking ahead.
“I feel more confident,” she said.
Hula, Belle said, has opened doors for her. She has performed in Japan, met many people and discovered more about her culture and, yes, herself.
She plans to keep dancing and sharing her ohana’s story. It’s an honor, she said, to do so.
“I like how fun it is,” she said. “It makes me happy.”