Kahiko takes center stage — without last year's Merrie Monarch winner

HILO, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - With the Miss Aloha Hula crown having been passed to Kelina Eldredge, it's time to move on to group competition at the 2017 Merrie Monarch Festival.

On Friday night, 29 halau will be taking the stage to perform their kahiko numbers, the most highly-anticipated and most memorable at each festival.

Last year's top performers were both hometown Hilo halau. In first place for the kane was Halau Hula 'O Kahikilaulani, with a hula noho that paid tribute to Waipi'o Valley, honoring its high chiefs and fertile land.

First place for the wahine went to Kumu Johnny Lum Ho's Halau o Ka Ua Kani Lehua. Their performance featured a crowd-favorite mele about the legendary white turtle of Molokai, with costumes and movements that were all anyone could talk about during intermission.

The 2016 overall combined division title went to the kane of Halau Na Mamo O Pu'uanahulu. The O'ahu halau took first place overall – first place 'auana and third place kahiko – but won't be returning to compete this year.

Instead, they'll be sitting in the Merrie Monarch stands in support of other halau. Win or lose, the halau takes a break every three years.

"When we compete, everything is focused on the mele," said Kainoa Keana'aina. "And for us to bring forth the mana and the life to the mele, and for us to take a break, it's a nice break to enjoy everything else.

The halau celebrated its 30th anniversary last year with their 15th appearance at Merrie Monarch. The overall win was the third for Kumu Sonny Ching and Lopaka Igarta-De Vera's Kapahulu halau.

"The awards wasn't as important to us as us coming together as a halau and celebrating our legacy of hula," Lopaka Igarta-De Vera.

"When the two performances were done, I could have left. I could have come back home to O'ahu right at that moment," Ching added. "Because the two performances were everything that I asked for. I thought they brought pride and dignity to my kupuna, to my family line of hula, to all of my teachers and all of their teachers.

For the kane who had been struggling to connect with their mele right up to landing in Hilo, it was an especially meaningful win.

"Last year's journey was about kumu and kumu's family's legacy, and to have that recognized was really, really special," Sai Aganon, one of the halau's dancers.

The 2016 champs are ready for a little time away from competition mode.

"It's nice to take a break and it's nice to use the time to rebuild, replenish and to enjoy others," Iokia Ramento. "Enjoy the experience of other people."

With Merrie Monarch put aside for now, the halau will focus instead on developing new Mamos.

Over the last three decades, the keiki kane and kaikamahine of the halau have blossomed into men and women -- some with children of their own who are now dancing.

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For more information on the 2017 Merrie Monarch Festival, click here

To watch live coverage of the 2017 Merrie Monarch Festival during competition hoursclick here.

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