Kaua‘i hālau to take stage at Merrie Monarch: ‘We’re not performers; we’re storytellers’

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Kumu hula Leināʻala Pavao Jardin stands beside 17 of her nearly 300 students. Taken Mar. 21, 2024. Photo Credit: Scott Yunker/Kaua‘i Now

Eighteen women move into a triangular formation beneath the bright white lights of the Alakaʻi O Kauaʻi Charter School gym.

Each finds her place within seconds. They have repeated this configuration countless times within the past 10 minutes, halting their movement and resetting when the voice of kumu hula Leināʻala Pavao Jardin rises above the mele (song) pouring from a nearby loudspeaker.

“Your head should move and your arms should move,” Jardin corrects them. “Your heart should move.”

The women nod and begin again, moving forward like a gentle wave splashing upon a sandy shore. They range in age from 14 to 30 and have been picked from the nearly 300 members of Jardin’s Hālau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leināʻala to participate in the 61st annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo on the Big Island. The prestigious competition – which runs tonight through Saturday – is often referred to as the Super Bowl or Olympics of hula. Only hālau (hula schools) invited by festival organizers may participate.

“She’ll select you when she sees potential or when she sees someone working harder,” says Mya Jaekealoha Smith, the youngest of the 18 chosen dancers, when asked about Jardin. “She says there’s always a point in your hula journey. Everybody’s at different points.”


Smith was speaking six days prior to the start of the 2024 Merrie Monarch Festival. At that time, she and her peers were attending three five-hour practices per week – traveling from throughout Kaua‘i to dance late into the night at the gym on the South Side of the Garden Isle.

“I’m nervous. I’m excited. I’m feeling a little bit of everything,” Smith admits. “I’m looking forward to sharing the story of our mele. My kumu (teacher) says we’re not performers; we’re storytellers.

“My kumu teaches me not only hula but many other things, like how to respect others,” Smith says. “She takes us on little journeys to heiau (ancient places of worship) and teaches us about life in general. She shares a lot of her own story.”

Hālau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leinā‘ala under the direction of kumu hula Leinā‘ala Pavao Jardin perform at Merrie Monarch in 2023. Photo Courtesy: Merrie Monarch Festival, Facebook

Journeys through hula and journeys through life are often intertwined. Indeed, they are one and the same odyssey for many dancers: “Hula is life,” a kumu hula on the Big Island lately claimed.

“If there is no hula, there is no Hawai‘i. There is no Hawaiian people. That’s how I see it,” Jardin says. “For a long time, there was no written [Hawaiian] language, so the hula was the way in which we kept our stories alive.


“The hula, the stories of our ancestors, is who we are here in Hawai‘i. If we lose that, then we’ve lost the essence, the heart of Hawai‘i,” Jardin continues. “To be the voice of your ancestors is a true honor and one that I take really, really seriously.”

Hula is storytelling. Hula is life. Lives are voyages remembered, celebrated and interpreted by dancers on journeys of their own.

Jardin entered the realm of hula as a 3-year-old under the tutelage of kumu hula Kuʻulei Punua. She later continued her keiki training with kumu hula and sisters Lovey Apana and Beverly Muraoka before enrolling at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, where she spent four years of advanced hula training under kumu hula Rae Fonseca.

Jardin graduated college in 1995, having danced at Merrie Monarch festivals while living on Kaua‘i and in Hilo. She intended to remain at the University of Hawai‘i and continue her studies in speech pathology – until her mother fell ill. Jardin abandoned her plans and moved back to the Garden Isle to care for her ailing parent.

“I just came off of such an amazing four years in Hilo with my kumu,” Jardin recalls. “I come home and I’m like, ‘This can’t be the end of hula for me.’”


Fonseca, Jardin’s Hilo-based kumu, suggested the recent college graduate continue her hula journey by becoming a teacher herself. Jardin opened Hālau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leināʻala with his blessing one year later. The hālau received its first invitation to the Merrie Monarch Festival in 2013 – three years after Fonseca’s death – and has performed annually ever since, repeatedly earning high marks.

The 2022 festival was a highlight, as Hālau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leināʻala took first place in every category in which it competed. Crowds of cheering Kauaians packed into the Līhuʻe Airport baggage claim area to welcome the victorious hālau home.

A panoramic photograph of the Nāpali Coast on the Island of Kaua‘i. Photo Courtesy: Remember, Wikimedia Commons

Back in the gym – mere days away from this year’s Merrie Monarch Festival – the 18 women continue to practice telling stories with every part of their bodies. Their 2024 kahiko (ancient) performance on April 5 is dedicated to the Nāpali Coast, the rugged northwest region of Kaua‘i known for its remoteness and stunning seaside cliffs.

“Kahiko is, to me, a space that is very, very sacred,” Jardin says. “When hula is done correctly, you can transcend space and time. You beckon your ancestors to share space with you.

“It was really important to me to find a mele or chant that spoke of that area. We did find one and it’s beautiful,” Jardin continues. “But the highlight of course will be the ʻaʻahu, or clothing, that we utilize for that.”

The kumu hula and her hālau have spent the past two years harvesting wauke, also known as paper mulberry, alongside Sabra Kauka, a prominent Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and kumu. Kauka is a longtime master of transforming wauke into the precious beaten fabric known as kapa. The material is of great significance: It is used to swaddle babies, clothe the living and wrap the bones of the dead.

“The ladies’ pāʻū, or skirts, are made of kapa,” Jardin says. “Not many people will spend two years pounding out all that wauke. Yet we’re completed and ready to go.”

Members of Hālau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leināʻala practice for the 61st annual Merrie Monarch Festival. Taken Mar. 21, 2024. Photo Credit: Scott Yunker/Kaua‘i Now

This year, the hālau’s April 6 ‘auana (modern) performance pays tribute to a romance at Kīpū Kai on the southeastern coast of Kaua‘i. Jardin and her dancers were recently invited onto the private ranchland, where one of her students – Kaua‘i County Council Vice Chair KipuKai Kuali‘i – was born to a Portuguese housekeeper and a Hawaiian paniolo, or cowboy.

“They fell in love,” Jardin says of Kuali‘i’s parents. “The ranch owner Jack Waterhouse threw them a lavish wedding on the estate. They had multiple children, three of which while they were down there, and one of them was KipuKai.”

Jardin watches her students restart their dance once again, lining up on the gym floor marked with tape matching the dimensions of the Merrie Monarch performance stage.

“If you can dance hula and be part of a hālau that really perpetuates at a deep level, you can do anything,” she says. “It really blesses you with all different tools for life.”

In the days immediately preceding their flight to Hilo, members of Hālau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leināʻala gathered foliage for their Merrie Monarch lei, like maile and palapalai.

Heleolanimaināmakaohāʻena Hailee Jo Yokotake will wear one such lei when, as her hālau’s soloist, she performs during the Miss Aloha Hula contest tonight.

“Learning the stories and then getting to share that with other people is what I love to do the most,” the 20-year-old said. “Just with our motions.”

Scott Yunker
Scott Yunker is a journalist living on Kauaʻi. His work for community newspapers has earned him awards and inclusion in the 2020 anthology "Corona City: Voices from an Epicenter."

Scott can be reached at
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