She’s the world’s longest-serving kumu hula ... and has never stopped learning
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Legendary Kumu Puanani Alama has been teaching hula for nearly eight decades — the longest in recorded history, according to the Hula Preservation Society.
She says hula was always her calling, going all the way back to when she was growing up on Liliha Street.
“I don’t even know my age when I started," said Alama. “I know I was a little, little girl because I used to have long hair for a little, little girl. They always selected me. Don’t ask me why they selected me but they always do. There was always teachers that would say, ‘You come over here,’ and I would go over there and they would say, 'Do you know how to hula?" And I would say ‘mhmm.’”
Alama attended St. Theresa School for several years but decided to leave so she could pursue what she called “God’s given dance” full-time.
Before she was even a teenager, she became a professional hula dancer. By 11, she was a kumu hula.
“I practically danced for every group that was in Hawaii at that time. I danced for John Akaka because he had his own group. I danced for Bill Aliiloa Lincoln. I danced for Sonny Ching’s grandmother Lina Guerrero. I danced for Emmalia Guerrero. I danced for many others ... Genoa Keawe," she said.
“I always felt I was the branches and the older people were the trunk of the tree. So I wanna make sure my branches look real pretty, so I’m gonna work towards it. You know I was never satisfied just being a regular hula teacher. I wanted to be an utmost hula teacher for my teachers, for my people.”
In 1954, after years of teaching for other kumu, she opened her very own studio at 75 South King St.
"It was scary kind of a thing to do at the very beginning because you know, you want to do everything right. You don't want to do anything that's not right and improper," said Alama.
This year marks her 78th year of teaching hula.
"It comes from the heart and we teach the children to love it because we love it. As teachers we try to show what we learned ourselves to our students so they can grasp and love it the way we love it."
Puanani is also the last surviving judge from the very first Merrie Monarch Festival.
Throughout the years, Puanani has been honored with multiple awards for her dedication to the culture and arts.
In fact, she and her sister ― Leilani Alama, who was also a legendary kumu hula ― have had multiple proclamations naming days in their honor.
“I like them all because you don’t expect it. When it comes it just feels like, oh I did the right thing by doing this and by doing that ... because you never stop learning when it comes to hula," Alama said.
"You go on and on and on and you make sure that when you teach you’re the best there teaching. You wanna feel very good about teaching your student, that they’re going to do something with it by loving it the way you love it.”
Puanani is 88 years old and still teaches four times a week at her Kaimuki hula studio, not missing a beat.
"I can walk now. I couldn’t walk at one time ... and I walk with a cane. But I can still hula, yeah, and I can still teach it. That’s important to watch it, to teach it.”
Her daughter is the kumu of Halau Hula Lani Ola in California, and her granddaughters also dance. Puanani’s legacy is being perpetuated with each precise step, each graceful hand motion.
“I’d like whoever decides to teach the hula that they would teach it from their hearts and to become very good," Puanani said. "Not just at that time but to love the hula with all their hearts, soul and mind so as when they teach, it shows that they love it.”
This profile is part of month-long series of stories ― called Mana Wahine ― about extraordinary women in Hawaii. Catch all of our profiles on Sunrise throughout the month of March!
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