While it may surprise many residents to know that there is a school of hula and Hawaiian culture tucked away in a business complex off 336th Street in Federal Way, by the beginning of May, the global hula community will know of the Ke’ala ‘O Kamailelauli’ili’i & Manawaiopuna hulau.
Members of the Federal Way hulau, run by Kamaile Hamada, are putting in many hours each night in preparation for the Merrie Monarch Festival and competition, which takes place the first week of April in Hilo, Hawaii.
The festival, according to its website, honors the legacy of King David Kalakaua’s vision of ensuring Hawaiian traditions, language and arts live on. To be invited is an accomplishment in itself. “It is absolutely the dream of every hulau — every hula dancer — to be invited to participate in the Merrie Monarch competition,” hulau member Tish Pinho said.
Hamada, the hulau’s kumu — or teacher, agreed.
“It is considered to be the Olympics of hula,” Hamada said, adding hulaus only get to participate by invitation, and those are not handed out carelessly.
“It’s like trying out for the Olympics,” Hamada said. “[Organizers] feel that you are of high enough caliber and then they will extend the invitation.”
Hamada said this marks the first time a hulau in Washington state has been invited.
He said this is “a big deal” for Federal Way in that it will mean more recognition for the city and its local hulau.
“For years, a lot of people have known us up and down the West Coast, but once we get to Hilo, it will be international,” Hamada said, adding hulaus from a number of different countries, including Japan, Germany and Mexico, will attend.
Not everyone in the hulau will be competing, however.
Hamada said, in all, there will be 16 olapa — dancers — and four ho’opa’a or chanters, as well as three musicians for the modern dancers, two kokua or helpers, one photographer, a lei adviser, one makeup artist and one seamstress.
While they have one more month of practice ahead of them, Hamada said his only expectation of his team at Hilo is they perform with heart. Pinho said the people who will compete at Hilo definitely have that.
“They have spirit,” she said. “They have grit in their gut because it takes a lot of sacrifice and commitment to get to Merrie Monarch.”
While only a number of hulau members will actually compete, many will bring along family members to the festival, which begins earlier in the week with celebrations, performances and feasting.
And Pinho and Hamada agreed that every hulau member helped pave the road to Hilo, from cooking food to be served at fundraisers or for after-practice nourishment to driving family members to practice, which have been bumped up from one night a week per age group to six.
“It’s a whole cooperative effort,” Pinho said. “Hulau is like a big family.”
“Everybody has a role,” Hamada agreed. “Everybody is participating in one way or another.”
Not just any hulau
While there are many other hulaus in the state, including one in Kent, Hamada said Federal Way’s is different from many.
According to the Federal Way hulau website, the school’s mission is “to perpetuate and preserve the teachings of Hawaiian Culture, Hawaiian Traditions and beliefs through language, songs, chants and dance; thereby bringing people together through cultural edification.”
It’s the dedication to the Hawaiian culture that draws so many people to Hamada’s hulau, with the majority of members living outside of Federal Way.
Pinho commutes from Olympia to see her hulau family for events and practice, and others drive from further out.
“The difference is we don’t do the Waikiki songs that people expect hula to be,” Hamada said. “When they come here expecting that, then they don’t last because this is studying Hawaiian culture.”
That is something Hamada takes seriously. While he is called kumu, he did not receive that title just because he instructs. It was bestowed upon him from his mother, the original Federal Way hulau kumu, who taught Hamada every aspect of the lessons he teaches.
“You’re passing on genealogy. You’re passing on history, culture, language, ways of life,” he said, adding even the songs to which the hula is performed are glimpses into the past.
“Some people just dance. You can’t dance if you don’t know what you’re dancing to. It’s more than just a song. It’s like a history book opens, and at the end of the song, it closes.”
Kent resident Cynthia Mann joined the hulau as a way to reconnect with her roots.
“I was raised in Hawaii, and from the time I was little, I danced hula,” she said. “I started when I was 3.”
Mann said she grew up during the time Hawaii became a state in 1959, and when that took place, greater emphasis was placed on assimilating into American culture than maintaining Hawaiian traditions. As a result, her generation lost a lot of their culture, including the language
“I wanted to learn what I had missed out on as a child,” Mann said of joining the hulau. “I wanted to learn from [Hamada], and I’ve learned a lot over the years, not only the language, but a lot of history and about the songs that we’ve danced to and about the people.”
When she moved to Washington state and had children, she hoped to introduce them to their heritage and dance.
“I wanted to instill that in them because I love the hula and my culture, and I wanted to teach them that,” Mann said.
She said she and her two daughters have benefited from joining the hulau— her daughters when they were teenagers and Mann when she signed up for a class on the Hawaiian language.
“The reason why we love this hulau is that [Hamada] teaches all about the culture itself,” Mann said. “He doesn’t just teach us how to dance, but he teaches us all about the Hawaiian culture. So it’s been a good place for learning.”
Mann’s younger daughter, Kanani Vidal said performing hula and being a member of the hulau is important to her because it has strengthened her ties to her heritage and brought her family even closer together. She said, however, it is equally important to her that she share her culture with others through hula.
And sharing is a big part of hula, the Hawaiian culture, and what is known as “aloha spirit.”
Mann said aloha spirit can be best described as someone who gives of themselves in everything that they do and to whomever comes along. While aloha is the Hawaiian word used in greeting and parting, it has a deeper meaning than that, all tied to the aloha spirit, Mann said.
“Ha means to breathe, so when you greet somebody you’re sharing yourself with someone with your breath, and it’s part of the aloha spirit,” Mann said.
Part of that aloha spirit means Hamada and the hulau openly share their culture, dance, language, songs and way of life with everybody who is interested, and many hulau members are actually not of Hawaiian descent.
Pinho said, however, those who do come stay all have a “Hawaiian heart.”
“I think a Hawaiian heart is really somebody who embraces that culture and has that aloha spirit and is living that aloha life in everything that they do,” she said.
Sharing the Hawaiian way of life and history also serves a larger purpose: ensuring the culture is not lost forever.
“No culture could survive if it wasn’t passed on to other people,” Pinho said.