Story by Lynn Cook
Photos by Dana Edmunds
“I was four years old when I went to keiki hula at Auntie Mapu’s house,” says Rebecca Lilinoekekapahau- maunakea Sterling, known to her halau as just Lilinoe. “The first thing I saw was a bunch of ‘big’ girls, maybe five or six years old. They were all in a line, moving together, dancing hula. It was amazing. I went to class every week, but for the first two or three months, I sat on an auntie’s lap, just watching. I didn’t think I could dance. I just wasn’t ready. To this day I don’t do things unless I am completely ready.”
Lilinoe Sterling and Anuhea Smith
The hula school was Halau Mohala ‘Ilima, and Lilinoe’s teacher was and still is kumu hula Mapuana de Silva. Lilinoe’s sister Pua soon joined, too, and from tiny dancers the sisters moved to teen classes, dancing through high school and into their college years. More than twenty years later both are still dancers. Lilinoe’s ability as ‘anake—that is, “auntie” or assistant—to the younger students even brought an invitation from kumu Mapuana to teach the “babies,” the four-year-olds. Then Lilinoe started teaching students age five through eight. “The babies have so much energy, rejuvenating energy!” Lilinoe says. “No matter how tired you are from college classes or a job, they work their magic.”
In the Islands thousands of young haumana (students) like the Sterling sisters join Hawai‘i’s hundreds of halau (hula schools) at single-digit ages, maturing into accomplished dancers comfortable in their ability and grace. Keiki hula became prominent in the 1970s as part of a broader revival of interest in things Hawaiian now called the Hawaiian Renaissance. It was in the mid-’70s that the largest and longest-running keiki hula event, the Queen Lili‘uokalani Hula Competition, started in ‘A‘ala Park, in Honolulu’s Chinatown. What started as a girls-only competition grew to include boys; it moved from ‘A‘ala Park to the Farrington High School auditorium to the Blaisdell Center Arena, where today it draws an audience of two thousand each day for three days every July. Mapuana has entered keiki in the event nearly every year since 1980. “In the early years I would pick up all the girls in my van, take them to Kamehameha School to practice and then drive them all home,” she says. The first year they took first place in ‘auana, modern hula. In the second year, first place in kahiko, ancient hula.
Coming from the Auntie Maiki Aiu Lake tradition of hula, Mapuana’s costumes are simple, allowing the hula and the dancer to be the focal point. Plumeria is usually the flower of choice. White blouses and hula skirts for girls, white shirts, slacks and a ti leaf skirt for the boys. Lilinoe remembers the competition as “mostly fun; I was a bit nervous, getting dressed up to go on stage to dance with my hula sisters.” Though there are solo dance competitions at the Queen Lili‘uokalani competition, Mapuana doesn’t enter her students in them. For her, hula is about collaboration. “My kids always ask why we don’t enter a single boy or girl for Miss or Master Keiki Hula,” says Mapuana. “I ask them, ‘Who would you want me to choose: you or someone else?’ Then there are no more questions.” She encourages the dancers to compete with themselves and not worry too much about which hula school will win. “Always work to do your own personal best,” Mapuana says. “Be happy with what you present.”
The first year Mapuana’s boys’ class entered, they chanted an eight-verse oli. “I drove them from Kailua to Honolulu in my van. On the way over the Pali Highway, they chanted until it was memorized, then they chanted in rounds.” On the way home, she says, they chanted it backward. “Young brains,” Mapuana smiles. The boys placed first.