Celebrating Hula at Merrie Monarch

For Diane Paloma, hula is more than a dance. It’s her lifestyle. Paloma, CEO of Lunalilo Home, was one of the hundreds of hula dancers who participated in the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo. She and her halau (hula school), Ka Pa Hula O Ka Lei Lehua under kumu Snowbird Bento, danced in the hoike (exhibition) before the start of the competition. It was Paloma’s 10th time dancing at the festival. She’s been dancing hula since she was a student at Kamehameha Schools. Paloma talked story with me about the significance hula has in her life.

How do you prepare for Merrie Monarch?

We practice once a week for a couple of hours then two to three times a week during the months leading up to the festival. So I fit in a physical activity when I can. I take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator. I walk around the basketball court while I’m waiting for my daughters to finish basketball practice.  The best training for me is running around a track while going through all our oli (chants) to maintain endurance.

What about the mental preparation?

It’s important to bind yourself with the meaning behind the mele (song) and dance that you’re performing.  Last year, one of our dances was for Kaahupahau, the shark goddess who lived at Pearl Harbor or Puuloa.  We went to dance for her and had special access on Ford Island to go to the site the mele talks about. It’s not only important to internalize that meaning individually, but to be able to share that through hula.  That is the ancestral knowledge that gets passed on generation to generation.

How has hula helped you in your profession as a health care leader?

It’s important to know the history of where our health came from. Native Hawaiians were some of the healthiest people in the world before western contact. We were physically active and self-sustaining with a low-fat diet. Our culture changed over the years with loss of land. We’ve become some of the unhealthiest people in our own homeland. So hula helps us get back to culture to know our identity and be proud of who we are. When we have that pride, it encourages us to care for and perpetuate the best parts of being Native Hawaiian.  We need to take the lessons from our kupuna (elders) generations ago and apply it to today to find solutions on how to restore Native Hawaiians back to good health.

 What’s the most enjoyable part of hula?

Internalizing the dance and knowing that you’re passing down the story. It connects our past and future because my kids may learn the same dance and pass it to their kids.  Hula also connects us to each other in the present day, we are an ohana and the social capital we build together makes our community stronger.  It’s similar to my work at Lunalilo Home. There’s a long legacy and I’m here for only a small piece of it. So I learn from the people who came before me and I’m setting up this place to be better for people who’ll come after me. And hula helps make that possible.

How does it feel to perform at Merrie Monarch?

It’s awesome. When you think about how much you’re enjoying it or — on the other end of the spectrum— freaking out, then muscle memory kicks in. Your body takes over and does what it needs to do after all the hard work of training and practicing. I’ve been able to put away the nervousness and just enjoy the moment of being on stage, representing my halau (hula school) and hula family, and putting out the best performance possible. It’s doesn’t matter if we win or lose. It’s nice to win. But for me the personal gain is having the privilege to be invited to dance at that level.

Photos: Courtesy of Diane Paloma and Kai Martell

Read about how hula helped Paloma deal with cancer in the summer issue of Island Scene magazine.