HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Any hālau that performs in Merrie Monarch will tell you what an honor and privilege it is to be invited to hula's most prestigious event.
Hālau Mōhala 'Ilima has been dancing for 35 consecutive years -- an incredible achievement considering most take breaks in order to prepare for such a demanding show.
This time they're returning to Hilo as the wahine overall and wahine kahiko champions.
"If I could have chosen any year, I would have chosen the 50th," kumu hula Māpuana de Silva said with a smile. "At the same time, even if we hadn't placed anywhere I would have still had the same feeling of accomplishment and gratitude for all of the years that we've been able to participate."
The hālau from Ka'ōhao won wahine overall once before, 30 years ago, and have consistently placed in kahiko or 'auana since then.
"Everybody knows what we look like. They know what to expect -- so the pressure is that -- we have to live up. We have to live up to the expectation that everybody has and because they know our work, we can't -- we have to be better than they even imagine!"
20 ladies, all veterans who've been dancing together for years, will be returning to the Hilo stage.
"It can be a very calming experience to walk up there and feel your hula sisters next to you, giving energy to you, feeding off of them, giving them energy and so it's an exhilarating but safe experience all in once," described Kapuahelani Sterling, the hālau's Miss Aloha Hula candidate.
"A lot of the time I'm just thinking to dance my guts out. We've been training for this -- these two mele for months -- and I know it so well and I just want to exude that and show it and be in the places we're dancing about. That's all I see and I dance it like it's the last time I'm going to dance it and I'm going to miss dancing it," explained Puanani Connelly, who has been dancing for the last 6 years.
Even after decades of performing on hula's biggest stage, kumu hula de Silva says every year is still exciting and significant.
"When we go to Hilo, we don't have to worry about anything but hula. It's such a luxury. It really is and it's the only time we get to do that," said de Silva.
In addition to their top finishes in wahine overall and kahiko, Hālau Mōhala 'Ilima also placed third in wahine 'auana.
The ladies of Mōhala 'Ilima are often recognized for the old 'auana songs folks don't typically hear anymore, which they give new life to on stage. When it comes to song selection, kumu de Silva says the process is unchanging year after year.
"More often than not, the mele choose us and there is no formula. There is nothing we do or look for. We're always listening for beautiful mele. We're always thinking about what else we want to bring in to our hālau," Kumu de Silva explained.
The ladies won wahine overall last year by just one point.
"When you go to Merrie Monarch -- everybody is good. Everybody is good and anybody can win in any year, anybody can place and anybody can not place," kumu hula de Silva said.