Every year a handful of hālau who are not competing in kahiko or 'auana night are invited to a showcase at the Merrie Monarch Festival, but only one a halau from Hilo is asked to open Hō'ike every single year.
The stadium where Merrie Monarch takes place is named in honor of Aunty Edith Kanaka'ole -- a revered dancer, chanter, and composer, who is considered one of the preeminent kumu hula of Hawai'i.
Aunty Luana Kawelu, the Merrie Monarch Festival chairman, says the opening number each year at Hō'ike is given to Aunty Edith's family halau, Hālau o Kekuhi, because of the support she lent to the Festival from the very beginning and the standard at which the hālau has set the bar for hula kahiko.
"I think it's a really big honor -- especially for this place to be named after Grandma Edith -- and we be the first people on that stage," described Kauilanuimakehaikalani Keali'ikanaka'oleohaililani. "I can feel all that mana coming from that era. It transcends through time. Because we continue this style and we continue to live it, it becomes generational."
Aunty Edith's 'ohana says it's not about going first that matters -- it's about what that role means.
"Being able to be the first ones to drop sweat on the stage is, in my mind, making the first sacrifice. That's an altar. Thousands of thousands of people cycling onto that altar with the best of what their kūpuna gave them. It's the mōhai. It's the sacrifice before everyone comes and does their own offering," explained kumu hula Kekuhi Keali'ikanaka'oleohaililani. To be able to drop sweat is to be able to say, 'Everything going be maika'i'. It has to be the best offering we have -- the best gift we can possibly give -- that has to go into the stage."
Their style is 'ai ha'a, a form of hula kahiko that's not just alive but thriving as it's been passed down through the Kanaka'ole hula lineage.
"When I 'uwehe on stage it's not necessarily about just me opening up my physical self as well as my spiritual self, but it's about opening up close to seven generations of archaic memory previously. It doesn't necessarily hit me until I really get on the stage and start to break a sweat and that's when it really starts to open up and that's where I feel the connection through multiple generations -- that's where the legacy really starts to mean something for me," described Kuhao Zane.
Kumu hula Nālani Kanaka'ole says performing at Merrie Monarch isn't just an opportunity to share their style and inform others, but a chance to showcase ancestral memories within the mele they dance. She credits the Festival for the renaissance of hula kahiko.
"50 years ago hula kahiko was not known and was not taught popularly now we have the development of a certain style of hula kahiko that everyone accepts -- and this is what Merrie Monarch has done for that," kumu hula Nālani said.
Hālau o Kekuhi is a family affair in more ways than one -- not just the multiple generations of Kanaka'ole's that make up the hālau, but down to the toddlers kumu Nālani encourages to participate in practice. She says even if they are just watching from the stage, that observation is critical because that's what plants the seed of love, appreciation and knowledge that ensures hula and the Hawaiian culture lives on.
"When you do anything Hawaiian, if you are in a practicing position -- like the hula or like canoe paddling -- there is not only a buoyance, but a transcendence of older knowledge that comes into you or that comes into play when you're doing or practicing the hula at the same time. This not only comes to me, but it also disseminates through the generations. It's important that we teach our kids to remember dreams because that's where the knowledge come from," kumu hula Nālani Kanaka‘ole said.