KAPALUA — Singer, songwriter and Kumu Hula Keali‘i Reichel, a son of Lahaina, is nothing short of amazing. He’s won 31 Na Hoku Hanohano music awards, including four as Hawaii’s top male vocalist.
As a kumu hula (hula teacher), he brought his halau to the Merrie Monarch Festival last year to place fourth — a point short of third — in the wahine auana category against stiff competition. The halau also garnered its first Miss Aloha Hula title (his cousin, Henohea Kane) — a first for Maui in more than 30 years.
As a strong supporter of things Hawaiian, he is a founding director of the Hawaiian immersion school that is working wonders preserving the Hawaiian language. And almost every Saturday, he can now be found up in Kapalua teaching hula.
Watching hula over the years, one never ceases to be amazed at its beauty and grace; the intricate movements and the ability of each dancer to remember every motion from hands, hips and feet above, below and beyond. Learning hula is a journey of a lifetime. When asked how long the new classes for West Side residents would last, his response was quick: “Forever.”
Reichel recently decided to enrich the lives of would-be dancers, both experienced and newbies, by teaching keiki, kane/wahine and kupuna in three separate Saturday classes that run a tiring total of five-and-a-half hours. The masterful kumu, who has no need for more publicity, was kind enough to allow this columnist the privilege of sitting — but not dancing in — on a series of lessons for only one reason: “You are with Lahaina News.” (It is the Lahainaluna High School graduate’s former hometown paper.)
Even before dancers took their first step, Keali‘i outlined the strict rules for his new halau, to be known as Halau Ke‘alaokamaile (the scent of maile). Rule one: he should always be addressed as kumu, the teacher. Hula, Reichel began, embraces every aspect of Hawaiian culture. The kumu explained that some of the information to be imparted he considers privileged, only to be known by members of the halau, or if desired, with spouses or significant others. Thus, there will be no secrets in print here. But there will be descriptions of the essence of learning hula.
His first instruction involved discussion of what a halau is and how the new one would operate. The word “halau,” he explained, has multiple meanings. It originally meant a structure, or building to house a canoe. It was also used to refer to a meeting place. A halau, in a sense, is a group with a common goal. Today’s usage is that a halau is a school with the common purpose of learning and dancing hula.
The word “halau” is made up of “ha” (meaning breath) and lau (meaning many). In a lineup of hula dancers, the breath of dancers combine.
Hula dancers often wear a special kind of fragrant lei. Fragrance, according to kumu, is very powerful, because it changes people’s mindset and helps focus the mind.
The next instruction dealt with entering the halau. Students would soon learn a chant that they would be required to memorize and give before entering each session. “Our ancestors did not have doorbells,” he said.
Traditionally, as pointed out in this space before, a visitor to a home or place would begin with what today might be called a shout out, meaning, “I’m here. May I come in?” The chant now performs the same function for the halau.
The halau also places a great deal of emphasis on orderliness. Thus, slippers shed to bare the feet would need to be lined up before each lesson in a straight line, one after another, at the edge of the halau. Orderliness later would be extended to how dancers enter a performing venue and where they place their instruments before beginning.
Kumu next proclaimed that he sets the rules. “This is not a democracy,” he said. “It is a dictatorship. My function is to teach you, and you will come here to look, to listen and observe.”
Kumu then placed those who have not danced much hula (very few) in a back row. The most experienced of about 60 students would be up front, lined up in four very straight rows.
The first lesson was ready to begin. (To be continued.)
Keiki in a halau get ready to display skills they may end up refining for a lifetime at a special performance at Kaanapali Beach Hotel.