Only invited hālau can compete in the Merrie Monarch Festival and this year 23 made the cut for hula's premier competition.
The hālau come from all over the state, including three from California.
Many are veterans with decades of Merrie Monarch experience, but this year, among them, is a newcomer from Kalihi and it's the baby in more ways than one.
Hālau Hiʻiakaināmakalehua is competing in Merrie Monarch for the first time.
"The caliber is awesome and I'm just so happy to be a part of it. That they think that we're ready for this -- I'm happy about that now. It's just to live up to that 'cause with kulana comes kuleana with a higher standard that you're placed on, comes more responsibility," said kumu hula Robert Ke'ano Ka'upu IV.
It's clear the dancers recognize the significance of hula's biggest stage.
"When it comes to Merrie Monarch, there's a lot that you have to be prepared for -- mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally," said Kanoe Kaopuiki, who has been dancing with the hālau for the past year.
"I've been a spectator there and just the energy being there not as an ʻōlapa, not as a dancer on stage, and it has been so intense so I can only imagine how it's going to be like when I'm actually on the stage," Kaopuiki described.
"We live breathe and eat hula -- and it's exactly that. We go home and we think about hula. We go to work and we work, but we're thinking about hula. It's pretty intense, but it's the steps that we need to take in order to be prepared for that big stage," said Stephanie Mendieta, who joined the hālau four years.
"We plan to just leave our hearts out on the stage and just feel the moment, feel each other, feel the mele and just take it all in -- we've been practicing for months and this is eventually what they've been preparing us for, so we just want to dance our heart out," explained Mendieta.
Started just five years ago, Hālau Hiʻiakaināmakalehua isn't just the youngest halau at this year's Festival -- its being led by the youngest kumu hula.
"I've watched a bunch of these kumu hula who have entered Merrie Monarch for decades now and to be standing next to them is just -- it's amazing for Merrie Monarch to feel that our hālau is worth it. For me to be standing next to them is just great," said kumu hula Lono Padilla.
Both kumu admit there's a lot of pressure in being the new kids on the block, but they're drawing strength by connecting to their roots. All their mele pay tribute to their hula lineage -- even the performance by their Miss Aloha Hula candidate ties into their overall theme of representing home.
"My hope for that night is that I'm going to do my kumu, our halau, our 'ohana proud -- and just with all the aloha that I can muster share with the world who we are," said Tiana Kuni, who will be performing Thursday night in the Miss Aloha Hula competition.
"We knew our first year at the Merrie Monarch Festival we wanted to represent our home -- whatever that meant -- whether it's a place or people or things, so we collected songs that we loved or we composed new songs," described kumu Kaʻupu.
"The wahine kahiko actually just kind of evolved. It was magic that just kind of evolved. It started off as something simple, I wanted to write something up for my hālau, for my dancers, and quickly it just evolved into, okay I need to reference my kumu hula and then it just completely changed. It ended up becoming about our hula lineage -- honoring more so the people behind us, more so the platform that we stand on and the foundations that we plant ourselves on rather than from us forward. I thought it was really important that our hula ancestors were taken care of before we can be taken care of," explained kumu Kaʻupu.
Their ʻauana is "Ku`u Ipo O Ke Aumoe", which was written by Charles Warrington, Jr. in the 70s while he was on Kahoʻolawe and missed his wife. The song is about longing and kumu Kaʻupu says it is the perfect choice for the hālau.
"You don't have to be a lover. It doesn't need to be a person for you to long for that much, for us it was our home. It was Hilo. It was Maui. And it's on a daily basis -- we are always struggling everyday. We miss home everyday and we connected it in that way," described kumu Kaʻupu.
Both the dancers and kumu say preparing for Merrie Monarch has been a rollercoaster -- especially since Hālau Hiʻiakaināmakalehua was originally told there wasn't enough space for them this year. Then in a stroke of luck, organizers called a month later to say another hālau had dropped out. Now 15 dancers and their two kumu are on their way to the most internationally acclaimed hula competition.
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