After a two-year break from participating in Merrie Monarch, Kumu Hula Kaʻilihiwa Vaughan-Darval got the call to bring Hālau Hula Ka Lehua Tuahine back to the annual, invitation-only hula competition. She had not even begun holding regular classes since the COVID-19 pandemic had shut things down, so it was a mad scramble to prepare her dancers.
At the end of April 2022, Kumu Hiwa arrived in Hilo with 20 young women – 17 of whom were performing on the Merrie Monarch stage for the first time – and left with an impressive 5th place finish in the wahine ʻauana category.
Among the hālau’s returning dancers was Lower School teacher aide and Prep PE teacher Nohea Vaughan-Darval. What made her beautiful performance at Merrie Monarch even more special is that Nohea co-composed “Ka ʻŌnohi O Nā Kai,” the song chosen by her mother, Kumu Hiwa, for the ʻauana competition. Nohea is a member of the Tuahine Troupe, a group of selected aspiring mele students specializing in the perpetuation of Hawaiian cultural knowledge through mele performance.
“My daughters Nohea and Moana, and another girl – they were the only veterans on the line, the only ones who had actually danced in Merrie Monarch before,” said Kumu Hiwa. “They were always the youngest, in the third row following the aunties, feeling really safe. And this year was like, now you’re in the front row. Now you’re the leaders.”
Returning to Merrie Monarch with her hālau, Kumu Hiwa felt an important connection between her hula world and her role as a member of the performing arts faculty for The Priory and The Prep.
“Merrie Monarch is a stage to showcase the hula lineage and traditions. There were so many songs that other hālau were presenting that were in honor of Queen Emma,” Kumu Hiwa said. “I felt like we [her hālau] were representing Queen Emma, too, even though we were dancing about Liliʻu [Queen Liliʻuokalani], who’s also right in our backyard. We’re a part of that whole heart of Honolulu. I feel like all of those dancers, regardless of what school they attend, represented St Andrew’s, too.
“I look forward to the following years as we have students who are students at St. Andrew’s, who are also members of the hālau. I look forward to training them and raising them up so they can step on the stage and be the flowers that we chant about in our school chant, to step onto that bigger stage and really be recognized as Queen Emma’s flowers.”
Kumu Hiwa acknowledges the interesting differences between working with members of her hālau who have made a commitment to studying the hula, and teaching her St. Andrew’s students, for whom hula is a part of the curriculum.
“This is part of their day – they have to show up,” Kumu Hiwa laughed. “But my job is to give them a why. I love doing that because as soon as that light bulb goes on, it’s not work anymore. They recognize that everything about the hula is just...them.”
“Hula is life,” she explained, quoting the signature saying of her kumu’s kumu, Maʻiki Aiu Lake. “It’s just living and telling stories about life. And even if they’re not Hawaiian or if they have no connection whatsoever, they’re the same stories told across the world of life, of love, of growing, of heartache, of pain. So sometimes it’s challenging [teaching students] when there’s a big gap between understanding. But we don’t even have to speak English. This is a language of the heart. So it’s really rewarding when the light bulb does turn on.”
Kumu Hiwa said that besides giving students the why, she and her colleagues in the Performing Arts department are “growing many other attributes of the child. The ability to stand in front of people and perform. That takes time and effort and confidence. The hula and their classes give them confidence in themselves and a bit of pride that they need. They can take that forward into the next steps of their life.”
A meaningful change that took place midway through the 2021-2022 school year was the renovation of the Activity Room to become the physical hālau – the space where Kumu Hiwa teaches hula during the day for the St. Andrew’s students but also holds her classes for Hālau Hula Ka Lehua Tuahine.
When asked what this physical space has brought to the St. Andrew’s program, Kumu Hiwa paused for a moment to reflect, then said, “Finding a place to root. I think you need to root so that you can hoʻolu and grow.
“It’s technically what I needed,” she added, explaining that since joining the faculty at the start of the 2018-2019 school year, “I’ve been placed in different areas and I didn’t really have a chance to root.
“The best part is that even though we’re in a space, the doors open really wide. We are mirrors of our environment. Hula is a mirror of the environment. The people and the spirit of the Hawaiian people are just mirrors of our land and our ʻaina, which is where the spirit and the mana comes from.
“So that space right there to me is everything because we can feel the air, you can smell everything. It’s all the things that make us come alive. And it’s perfect just there. We can see the birds, the mana-o-ku (white fairy tern) who live on our property.
“I love all of those wonderful things, and we get a sense of Ke Akua because the Cathedral is right across the way. All of that is built into that one particular space. I didn’t plan that, it just happened.
“The location is everything,” Kumu Hiwa continued with the gratitude evident in her voice, “and just having a place for the students to call home. You can feel that they are so much more comfortable, especially in that space with the sunshine coming in and the lau-ki (ti leaves) right outside the door. Everything that’s a safe space, which is what a hālau really is.
“It’s still evolving. We still need to set up shop and settle in and make it ours. But the best part is that it’s this in-between space – between hālau and school – and it’s open both ways. It’s a wonderful open space for everyone.”
As the students learn hula in a beautiful space dedicated to this integral component of a St. Andrew’s experience, Kumu Hiwa hopes that confidence is something they take with them when their time together as students and teacher comes to an end. More important, though, is the knowledge.
“You can’t get everything in a short time. But you can plant seeds about base and place so they take that piece of aloha and a piece of Queen Emma with them into the future so that wherever they go, they remember her.
“Maybe later on in their lives if they go away and come back, and they have keiki, they will say, ‘I went to this school.’ They’re going to remember that this was Queen Emma’s school. And they’re going to remember the tiny things because it touched them here.”
As the points to her heart, Kumu Hiwa’s face lights up. “There it is. It’s a feeling, right? It’s not about checking off a Hawaiian box – because that doesn’t live at all. They won’t ever remember it.
“But if they remember how they felt and how they made other people feel, that will last a lifetime.”