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HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) -
There was only a difference of three points between the overall title winner and the second place finisher at last year's Merrie Monarch, but the kāne hālau that came out on top did what few others have -- first place in each category.
The kāne of Hālau Hula ‘O Kawaili'ulā say last year's award was especially meaningful because it fell on the 50th anniversary, but even more so because they took a risk -- something they plan to do again this time around.
Kawaili'ulā under the direction of Kumu Chinky Mahoe swept last year's Merrie Monarch -- winning not just the overall title, but kane overall, kane 'auana and kane kahiko.
"There's a certain energy -- there's a certain mana that comes with the competition," described kumu hula Chinky Mahoe.
One would also think there's an added pressure that comes with being number one, but the men say that's not the case.
"It's not so much looking at the competition and other competitors but it's more competing against ourselves and how can we better ourselves and how can we top what we did last year," explained Keli'i Puchalski, who started dancing with Kawaili'ulā 20 years ago.
Besting last year's performance won't be an easy task -- their unconventional kahiko, a hula noho, brought the crowd to their feet. But unorthodox worked before, so they're going to try it again.
"We're just doing a ton of slapping ourselves and chanting and stomping and doing all this footwork that kind of again, wasn't in our comfort zone -- these aren't motions we would normally do. Every year we're forced to re-invent ourselves -- I don't know, we almost never get a chance to be comfortable because we keep getting new challenges or new something thrown at us that forces us to grow," said Nathan Cruz, who has danced for his dad with Kawaili'ulā for 18 years.
The style is called pa'i kū. According to Kumu Mahoe, it has never been performed before at Merrie Monarch. He says the idea came to him as a vision -- and it was solidified once he learned the style had a name and hopefully a place on the festival stage.
"It was a ho'ailona or sign for us to be able to continue now to do that, so it was my way open to say, 'Okay, again -- we'll try just like with the hula noho last year'," said Kumu Mahoe.
This time there will be fewer men on stage, but all seven are veteran dancers.
The kahiko is about Hawai'i Island Chief Kalaunuiohua, who prior to Kamehameha, tried to unite the Hawaiian Islands under one rule by sailing from one island to the next -- conquering soldiers and their canoes along the way. Kumu Mahoe says the halau is dedicating their performance to the Merrie Monarch, which is celebrating traveling from its first fifty years into the next fifty. The song also pays tribute to Hōkūle'a's upcoming Worldwide Voyage.
"It's something that people normally don't see and I like to be that person who brings out things that people normally don't see -- whether good or bad, we do it," kumu Mahoe said with a laugh.