Maui dancers seize top spots at Merrie Monarch
It felt like deja vu Thursday night at the Merrie Monarch Festival with Maui dancers finishing one-two in the Miss Aloha Hula competition.
For Manalani Mili Hokoana English, it was deja vu with a twist.
Two years ago, she was just three points short of fellow Maui dancer Tori Hulali Canha, who took the title, providing a one-two finish for the Valley Isle.
This year offered much the same Maui dominance in the individual hula competition, only this time English of Kula’s Halau Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka took the crown and Sloane Makana West of Halau Kekuao-kala’au’ala’iliahi of Wailuku finished second.
“It felt amazing,” English said via cellphone Friday from the site of the 50th annual Merrie Monarch Festival. “I was like, ‘Oh no, was it really me? Am I dreaming?’
“I was pretty thrilled and overwhelmed with happiness.”
The 24-year-old Waiohuli resident also was awarded the Hawaiian Language Award, completing a clean sweep of the top awards by Maui dancers.
“We’re very proud of her,” said English’s kumu hula Napua Greig. “She is the epitome of our hula tradition. . . . We couldn’t be happier.”
In what was her second appearance in the Miss Aloha competition and eighth trip to the festival, English credited her experience as one of the reasons for her success.
“I knew what to expect,” she said referring to the training and technique needed for the individual competition. “It’s the little things that make a difference.”
English, who has danced hula for about 15 years, all with her current halau, said her experience with the backstage transition from hula kahiko (ancient) to hula auana (modern) was particularly helpful.
“It can get crazy in the dressing room,” she said. “There’s the makeup, the hair, the flowers. . . . It just helps to make the journey smoother.”
Greig, who was one of the founders of the Kula halau 17 years ago, has watched English grow up and agreed that her maturity was the key to her performance.
“Her age, maturity and life experience, she draws on that,” Greig said. “All of that put together, along with her training and fine tuning. . . . She was ready.”
In contrast to her smooth performance at Merrie Monarch, the Kapiolani Community College radiology technology student’s life has been very hectic in the preparation.
Since the end of last year, the full-time student with a part-time job flew home every other weekend to practice with her halau. English eventually put her job on hold and began flying back every weekend for the past month.
“I don’t know how I managed it in the beginning,” she said. “It wasn’t easy.”
Finishing behind English was West, a senior at Kamehameha Schools Maui and a student under kumu hula ‘Iliahi and Haunani Paredes. She had a difficult journey to the festival as well.
Her kahiko honored Queen Emma, beloved wife of Alexander Liholiho, Kamehameha IV. She described her performance and her personal connection in a television interview that aired before she took the stage. West said that the composer of the mele calls for the queen’s return to her Hanaiakamalama, or summer home, after losing her son and husband.
“And those are two very important people,” West said while choking back tears in the interview. “I have also lost one important to me, which is my dad.”
West went on to finish in second place with 1,042 points, one point ahead of third-place finisher Jasmine Kaleihiwa Dunlap of Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela of Oahu. English finished with 1,057 points.
West could not be reached for comment Friday.
Greig, who was with English during the previous one-two finish, said she was surprised and proud of English and West.
“It’s good that these young women from our island are so dedicated to our cultural practice,” she said.
The festival ends tonight at Aunty Edith Kanaka’ole Tennis Stadium, with Maui’s Halau Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka, led by Greig and her sister, Kahulu Maluo, competing in the women’s division, and Halau Kekuaokala’au’ala’iliahi’, under the direction of the Paredeses, entering its men in the kane group division.
Tonight’s competition features hula auana, following Friday night’s hula kahiko.
The Merrie Monarch Festival will be televised live on KFVE, Channel 5, beginning at 6 p.m. The competition will be streamed live online at www.kfve.com.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at email@example.com.