Hula

Hula
Puanani Alama, 82, left, and her sister Leilani, 87, with Puaʻs daughter and grandchildren
Image: WANDA A. ADAMS

Sister Act

The charming winners of the “I Ola Mau Ka Hula” award put on the moves

Hula / How rare it is in 2012 to see hula outside of a competition or public performance–unless, of course, you are a hula student, in which case all you see is yourself in the mirrored wall, making mistakes, and kumu giving you The Look.

But for students of aunties Leilani and Puanani Alama, Oct. 6 was time only for looks of love: love from their families, their haumana (hula students), friends, scholars and students of others who respect them.

Leilani, a former Aloha Week Queen, still teaches in her Kaimuki school five days a week, as she has done since 1943. She is 87 and has told her younger sister, “I am going to dance until I go to heaven, so you can’t retire either!” Both have put in countless hours, appearing for free at events, judging competitions, helping with family celebrations.

Puanani is the last living judge from the first-ever Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year; her legacy lives on through her daughter, “Baby Pua” Jung, kumu hula of Halau Hula Lani Ola in Laguna Hills, Calif., and twin granddaughters, Kuupua and Kuulei.

All were present, crowded into the bar area at a shut-down Hula Grill Sunday to dance, talk and sing for the 2012 winners of the “I Ola Mau Ka Hula,” awards, given annually by Hula Grill at the Outrigger Waikiki Hotel in conjunction with the Hula Preservation Society.

Singer, recording artist and kumu hula Robert Cazimero–reduced to blushes when Puanani recalled him as “such a cute young boy,” in the days when the Alamas danced for his musician parents–got to the heart of the afternoon’s gathering. “The Alamas are very, very honorable and very, very private. But they were the standard,” he said. His comments go directly to the purpose of the five-year-old award program: to recognize not necessarily the best-known, nor the flashiest performers, but those who have quietly given their lives to the dance that King Kalakaua called “the heartbeat of Hawaii.”

One had only to see how many important figures drove into Waikiki–translator, teacher and composer Puakea Nogelmeier for one–just to give a lei, a kiss, a warm word, even if they couldn’t stay.

The two–as always in full floral regalia, absolute gardens in their hair–beamed graciously under the weight of lei so high they had to prune them to see. They spoke few public words. Auntie Puanani did note three special members of the younger generation present: Honolulu Community College teacher and former student Kimo Keaulana and singer-kumu hula Cazimero and Tony Conjugacion.

But most of the day was taken up with impromptu performances and songfests–and, judging by the sassy selections performed, including the suggestive “Maunaloa,” these were ladies who personified the eye-flashing, naughty but nice era of at-home kanikapila hula. Cazimero sang an old hapa haole ditty–joined by everyone in the room–“Show me how to do the hula like they do in Hanalula.” It felt like a family party.

Cazimero couldn’t help but dance: Puanani called on him. And, as she said, “in our time, anything a kumu wants, you couldn’t say no. We always said yes.” Indeed, they did.