Keepers of the Kaona: How These 6 Kumu Preserve Hawai‘i’s Hula Traditions
These kumu hula have worked tirelessly for decades to ensure that the kaona, knowledge and traditional practices shared by their mentors are passed on to the next generation.
Good hula dancers convey a place or feeling through their movements, from their wrists and fingertips down to their toes.
But decoding the true meaning of a mele hula—“danced poetry”—can be daunting. Hawaiian words may have as many as six or seven definitions. The kaona, or hidden meaning behind compositions, makes the art of hula enigmatic.
“Kaona is the impetus for mele or oratory, and is thus the foundation for the composition, guiding the imagery and word choice,” says Puakea Nogelmeier, leading Hawaiian language expert and professor at the Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language at UH Mānoa. “Kaona is embedded, but seldom directly tangible to anyone not connected to the composer and the composition.”
The secret meanings in hula and oli, or chants, were integral to preserving Hawaiian cultural knowledge, particularly when the practice was restricted.
In recent years, the popularity of hula soared, thanks in part to the annual Merrie Monarch Festival, which is televised online and generates more than $1 million in direct out-of-state visitor spending. Some consider it the Olympics of hula.
While kumu hula have mixed feelings about competition, they all agree hula must come from the heart, whether it is the ancient hula kahiko or modern hula ‘auana. We spoke to six of these kumu to unravel a bit of the mystery.
Nālani Kanaka‘ole is the daughter of renowned chanter, composer and kumu hula Edith Kanaka‘ole, who is also the namesake of the stadium that hosts the annual weeklong Merrie Monarch Festival. It was Kanaka‘ole’s grandmother, however, who first taught her. Mary Kekuewa Kanaele Fujii was one of the few kumu who trained in the hula kapu tradition in the late 1800s, and she ensured that her descendants learned the ancient hula style of ‘aiha‘a. Kanaka‘ole, who spoke Hawaiian at home, began teaching in 1960 at the age of 14. She currently leads Hālau o Kekuhi with her niece, Huihui Kanahele-Mossman.
“Tūtū Mary was strict with a keen eye on body movement. It was common for her to hit your hand or foot with the pū‘ili if it was not holding the right gesture. Papa hula was long so it was smart to get it perfect at least the second time. But if it was a repeat of the same mistake, she would send you to the back of the class to figure it out. It forced me to learn fast, be in good condition and broaden my lens for learning.
When my mom became a kumu, I was 13 years old and already dancing for my eldest cousin who took over after Tūtū Mary. By 15, I was into choreography. Luckily my mom composed a few mele to remember the old moves and stepping patterns she had learned. This was pivotal in changing how we taught hula. My sister Pua had moved home, so the change to kahiko as a focus became more real as my mom was just starting to be known in the state for her hula workshops.
From my mom I know the connection of hula with the natural world, her knowledge of chants, and mele’s mysticism in how it can work for the positive. She was the mānaleo of her time. Mānaleo for the kumu level is to compose on the spot while chanting.
The metaphoric mannerisms of the language are hands-down the most valuable takeaway from the generations before me.
Hula is my passion, and I have had the same amount of rigor from 18 to 71 years old.
It is the practice of hula that activates my ancestral memory. When there is constant change culturally, it is crucial for us to address its authenticity.”
Esteemed Maui kumu hula Hōkūlani Holt-Padilla first studied with her grandmother Ida Pakulani Long, and later learned from her aunt Kahili Cummings, mother Leiana Woodside and kumu hula Hoakalei Kamau‘u. Holt-Padilla is also an educator, playwright, composer and director. Her bilingual hula drama about Maui’s premier chief, Kahekili, toured the U.S., Japan and Germany. In addition to leading the hālau she founded in 1976, Pā‘ū O Hi‘iaka, she directs Ka Hikina O Ka Lā, a Hawaiian student scholarship program at UH Maui College. She also works with nonprofits Kauahea Inc. and Lālākea Foundation, teaches community culture classes, and oversees cultural education centers in Waihe‘e and Wai‘ehu, Maui.
“I come from a family of kumu hula so my journey was from birth. I did not think I would be a kumu hula and was dancing for the sheer joy of it all. It was my auntie and mother who decided that for me.
As a kumu hula, one of the joys of my life is helping the mele come to life through hula. We teach and learn about stories, place names, cultural practices, plants, animals, weather conditions, foods, ceremonies, religion and the myriad ways that our ancestors saw their environment.
At one time there were very few kumu hula who spoke Hawaiian. They just used someone else’s translations and choreographed from that. Now there are many kumu hula who speak Hawaiian, understand the nuances of the language, and therefore the nuances of the poetic references.
To me kaona are the various levels of Hawaiian language. At any given time there can be historical, cultural, political and social references, and those references are only known by a few within a mele. Kaona provides an additional layer of interpretation that can either be used or not by the choreographer or chanter. It sometimes brings a flavor or feeling to the expression of hula or oli.
Hula is a creative art; kumu hula are creative people. What is important, however, is that hula is recognized as hula 100 years from now. Like all creative arts there are trends, there are changes in aesthetics and there is creative experimentation.
I think competition has its place in the perpetuation of hula. Competition prepares a dancer for a level of excellence that they may not have achieved otherwise. It demands hard work, dedication, commitment and desire. However, competition should bring pride in accomplishment without bringing pridefulness. The competition should be against one’s own level of excellence, not against another person or hālau. Merrie Monarch on television has brought hula to the world and has brought an appreciation of all that hula and Hawai‘i have to offer. That can be a good thing.”
Minerva K. Malakaua Pang
Minerva K. Malakaua Pang first learned the kāholo (a basic hula step) when she was 3 years old, following a beloved older cousin. After moving to O‘ahu in 1942 from the Big Island, Pang worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Punahou School during World War II. She raised seven children in Makiki and moved to Pearl City in 1957, launching her hula studio out of her home one year later.
Pang received her certificate in ancient and modern hula from Auntie Emma Kahelelani Moniz Bishop’s hula studio in 1945. She also studied with Ku‘ulei Stibbard, Puanani Alama and George Nā‘ope. With the help of her husband, who advertised at Pearl Harbor, the studio quickly grew from her daughters to neighbors to more than 50 dancers. Earlier this year, she turned 90 and retired as a kupuna from Momilani Elementary, where she worked for three decades.
“I lived in Ka‘ū and we’d go to Hilo and spend the summer with my grandparents in Keaukaha. Next door there was a kumu hula. Her daughter and I were in the same class. We’d play jacks together on Saturdays. Her mom would call her to come in to dance, and she’d say ‘No, I’m playing with my friends.’ The mom said, ‘Tell your friends to come in.’ That was my first hula hālau, with Rose Kuamo‘o. Her daughter was Bella Richards.
My grandfather was a schoolteacher and he was very strict. He believed we should be studying, learning English and reading books. So I used to sneak next door. I told my auntie, ‘But she’s teaching us, no charge.’ So my auntie said, ‘OK, I’ll talk to grandpa.’ He never said anything after that, so I didn’t feel guilty.
To teach hula you have to know the songs and what they mean so you can share the true expression of the song. You have to love the hula. You have to be very serious. You come to learn. You have to practice and always smile when you’re dancing. Show your expression. That’s what people like to see.
Back when they first started a competition for keiki hula, they asked me every year, but I wouldn’t take my hālau, because what I learned was to love and share the hula. When you compete with other people, it’s different. Way back when you would go to lū‘au, all different hālau would come out. We clapped for each other and we shared aloha for one another.
Competition is different. You’re competing against them to win. I don’t care for that. I just want them to come out and perform the best they can.
I watch the competitions and I think they’re all wonderful. When they don’t get chosen, they cry. Maybe another hālau is better by a half point. I judged one year in 1985. My heart went out to them. It was hard. Because you know they put in so much practice and energy.
The point of hula is to enjoy it, share your aloha and feel that part of your Hawaiian heritage.”
One of the eldest kumu hula alive today and the last surviving original Merrie Monarch judge, Puanani Alama won’t stop moving. She still teaches about four days a week at her studio in Kaimukī, just a hallway away from where her sister, the late kumu hula Leilani Alama, taught. Before they reached their teens, they were already regular performers in Waikīkī in the 1940s. Alama has worked with some of Hawai‘i’s best singers, including Bill Ali‘iloa Lincoln and Genoa Keawe on the Lucky Luck Show. Now 87, she has been teaching for more than 70 years. Her daughter, Puanani Jung, carries on the tradition as a kumu hula in Laguna Hills, California, and her twin granddaughters also dance.
“I began dancing before I even went to school. We loved the hula, both my sister Leilani and I. I started teaching in the seventh or eighth grade. My sister opened the Alama Hula Studio in 1943. After school I would run over to my auntie’s house in Kalihi and I’d teach people who wanted to learn.
Uncle Bill Ali‘iloa Lincoln called my mom to see if I’d like to teach for him. She said, ‘Go talk to Uncle Bill.’ Well, I didn’t have to, because he just said, ‘You have a class.’
I was a little girl and I taught there. No one gave me the shuffle or was annoyed with me because I was getting my point across. They were kind of watching me and they liked what they saw so they encouraged me. I was about 15 years old.
I didn’t go to college because I knew I was going to be a hula teacher.
Waikīkī has changed so much. All of a sudden you see skyscrapers and fancy stores where you used to work. At least I saw how it was. How many can say they saw how it was?
Hula is a special dance. Because every part of your body moves—your feet, your knees, your hips, your arms, your fingers, your face, your mouth. I mean, what other type of dance can do that?
Sometimes I get stiff. I walk with a cane because I walk fast and I can fall. Sometimes I can hardly get up out of bed. I say, OK, now, what am I going to do? I’m going to ‘ami all the way to the bathroom. There are so many things I can do with the hula. Hula helps a lot.
Any nationality, as long as you dance hula, you are part Hawaiian. I don’t care what anybody tells me. It’s anyone who loves it.
Never be afraid to show it. I’ll put my cane down and get up and dance. People ask, ‘Auntie, are you OK?’ I’m fine. After I dance, I get my cane and walk away. If you feel that way, nothing holds you back.”
John Renken Kaha‘iali‘i Topolinski
Although loea hula John Renken Kaha‘iali‘i Topolinski is descended from royal dancers, it wasn’t until after he graduated from Brigham Young University and returned home to O‘ahu that he began to study hula with Auntie Mā‘iki Aiu Lake. He still remembers the rigorous training he went through as part of her first ‘uniki, or graduating class, in 1973. He has kept those lessons close to heart, along with the knowledge and wisdom passed down to him from Mary Kawena Pukui, Patience Namaka Bacon, Pele Pukui Suganuma, Henry Pa and Sally Wood Naluai. Topolinski, 77, continues to teach hula in Waipahu and share his expert cultural and historical knowledge at Ka Pā Hula Hawai‘i. Today, the retired Mililani High School Hawaiian History teacher works part-time at Waipahu and Honowai elementary schools. He is also known for his traditional Hawaiian feather handiwork.
“You can tell a good hula dancer from a dancer going through the motions. An excellent dancer is one who draws the audience into your story.
The kaona is only known to the composer and the person you compose it for. So people can guess. People sometimes see my motions and say, ‘Hey, how come you do the motions like that?’ People think it’s all the same. You know, like, this motion is O‘ahu, this is pua, etc. People today use the motions that go with the words, not the underlying meaning.
I was with Auntie Mary Kawena Pukui, until she passed, and her daughters Auntie Pat Namaka Bacon and Pele Pukui Suganuma. I was so fortunate. And you know what? They never charged. All they requested of me was that I memorize everything. Each week we’d repeat and repeat so it was pa‘a.
They gave me a good foundation and sent me to the other people. In those days, they sent you to other teachers if they didn’t have the expertise. You know why? Because they were confident in who they were. From each teacher I gained something different.
Auntie Mā‘iki was the first kumu who allowed us to make our own instruments. Training was rigorous, but it was fun.
Some hula today in my viewpoint is not hula, it’s some concoction of somebody’s imagination to bring the audience in. There are some motions that aren’t even Hawaiian. They’ve taken styles from the Western world, karate motions and stuff like that, which I think is so very wrong.
The costuming, it’s just like Las Vegas. Costuming to Hawaiians was an added thing. That was not the hula. It was the motions.
I’m kind of fearful of hula in the next 50 years and where it’s going. I hope there will always be traditionalists alive to keep it on course.
We were lucky, our generation. I shall never forget our teachers and how much they gave me even though I was kind of a hothead. I guess they saw something in me that I didn’t. They tamed my hardheadedness and put things into perspective.”
Earl Pa Mai Tenn
Earl Pa Mai Tenn had worked for years as a successful businessman in the transportation industry before he found his other calling: hula. Among the many mentors who guided him were Henry Moikehaokahiki Pa, Maddy Kaululehuaohaili Lam, Morrnah Nalamaku Simeona and Nadine Alexander (Laka) Kahanamoku, wife of Olympian swimmer and surfer Duke Paoa Kahanamoku. After receiving his certification as kumu hula from Father Franklin Chun of St. Peter’s and Rose Kapulani Joshua of Magic Hula Studio, Tenn taught and led the hālau at Windward Community College for 17 years. He has also toured throughout Mexico as co-founder of Ka Leo O Na Hula Teachers Association for nearly three decades, teaching hula fundamentals throughout the country.
“Prior to coming to hula, I became traffic manager for Honolulu Iron Works and Theo H. Davies and then opened my own business as an industrial traffic consultant. It got terribly boring. So I asked for guidance. Four words came. They were, ‘It’s time for hula.’ The process began of releasing all of my traffic knowledge and absorbing matters concerning hula.
When I started working with Uncle Henry Moikehaokahiki Pa, I was already in my 30s. He asked if I had any formal training. The answer was no, so he said, ‘Go to State Council On Hawaiian Heritage.’ There, Auntie Hoakalei Kamau‘u guided me and taught the fundamentals. About two years later, I returned to Uncle Henry, who taught the dance department of the Kamehameha Hawaiian Civic Club at St. Andrew’s. Staying with him until his transition, I inherited all of his hula notes, instruments, clothing. All of the knowledge from Uncle Henry is absorbed. He made sure all hula routines were recorded in writing.
Maddy Kaululehuaohaili Lam took me under her wing and shared her knowledge of culture, her specialties being music and hula. Today, I hold the copyright of her compositions. Both of these teachers collaborated closely with Mary Kawena Pukui.
My parents were issued to move to Kam Homes, the first type of federal subsidized housing, in the middle of July 1940, where I was born that October. Hawaiian was not spoken at home, it was sung. My mother was a manager of a Hawaiian musical group. I liked the melody and rhythm, so I would get up and dance.
It was when I went to Uncle Henry and Maddy when I began to understand the language more and understand the kaona of what was being done. The poetry of the text is the kaona. It’s the underlying meaning of why they use a certain word to describe a person, place or thing. It’s the choreography which enacts the language or text. If you choreograph for a deaf person, they should understand what the text is, Auntie Pat would say.
The most important thing is that you dance with the heart, and that you understand the text. All of my teachers said you do it with the aloha that lies in your heart. ”
Kaona Guardians at the Hula Preservation Society
The list of influential hula masters could go on for pages. We could not name them all, but the Hula Preservation Society has developed an invaluable resource: a library collection of interviews and artifacts from hula masters across the state.
The nonprofit was co-founded by Hawaiian teacher and composer Auntie Nona Beamer (who died in 2008) and her haumana (student), society executive director Maile Loo-Ching.
“She was a very wonderful, curious lady who wanted to have conversations with her peers about hula so we started recording them,” says Loo-Ching. “Everyone has different training, experiences and approaches so we started doing oral histories. They’ve lived through so much in that century when it was very hard to be Hawaiian and study tradition and live the Hawaiian way.”
The society archive in Kāne‘ohe is home to boxes of videotapes, records and photos, all to be digitized in the near future.
The “time-sensitive” element is what drives Loo-Ching, a kumu hula of 19 years who holds a degree in artificial intelligence from Stanford University.
“My classmates from high school say, ‘Ah, I thought you were going to be a rocket scientist,’ and I’m like, ‘Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m running a nonprofit,’” she laughs. “I was on that path. I love technology. But I knew I wanted to come back to Hawai‘i.”
Captured by the Beamer hula traditions, Loo-Ching returned home and found a way to blend her technology background with her love of the dance.
“I love the way they tell stories and they keep the kaona, the intent in it as they’ve been taught,” she says. “We’re just a vessel for the keepers from that time.”