Dancer Tauarii Nahalea-Marama recounts the unforgettable moments leading up to his hālau’s Merrie Monarch win.
Dancer, model, and actor Tauarii Nahalea-Marama began immersing himself in the art of hula at the age of 16. In the decade and a half since, Nahalea-Marama has studied with the same all-male hālau, Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka Lā, under the guidance of the same kumu hula, Kaleo Trinidad. In 2019, he and his hula brothers took home the first place award for kāne hula kahiko and kāne overall at the Merrie Monarch Festival.
In Ka Huaka‘i: The Journey to Merrie Monarch, viewers are immersed in the renowned hula competition through Nahalea-Marama’s perspective. His personal story about brotherhood, personal sacrifice, and growth gives insight into what it takes to become among the best in hula. We spoke with Nahalea-Marama to hear more about his early dancing years, the biggest challenges, and honoring Hawaiian culture.
How did you get into hula?
It was freshman year at Kamehameha [Kapālama]. There’s a portion during Song Contest called Hōʻike, a hula performance that’s put on while the judges tally up the scores. It’s like a nice little entertainment for all of the high schoolers. I distinctly remember sitting next to one of my high school classmates, who today is actually currently one of my hula brothers. We were watching that performance live from the bleachers, and we told each other that’s what we want to do next year. And so we got in to the hula classes and it pretty much snowballed from there.
When I was a junior, the teacher for our hula class, who is my kumu now, Kaleo Trinidad, was invited to go to Merrie Monarch. He had just had his ‘ūniki (graduation exercises to teach hula). He asked all of us boys if we wanted to compete. We’re young and we’re going to do anything, so we went.
The Merrie Monarch stage is legendary. What’s it like to get on that stage as a high school junior?
Oh my god, it was intimidating. It was 12 or 13 of us young guys going ahead and not really knowing what we were getting ourselves into. We knew that this was not something to take lightly. This was very serious and very dear. It’s part of our blood and culture. But you know what? We knew we had each other as well as our kumu. So we were just day-by-day figuring it out. That instills a determination.
You basically grew up with your kumu—as a person, but also as a dancer. How has that relationship unfolded through the years?
He’s definitely someone who is a big part of my life. He’s been a mentor ever since I was in high school. I’ve known him over half my life. We have a strong bond and realtionship. We’ve gone through a lot of experiences. In those early years, he was teaching and learning too because he was such a young kumu. I think he was in his late 20s that first year at Merrie Monarch. And at that age, to take these group of students under his wing and take a leadership role—man, I give him so much props. He’s definitely someone that I love dearly. I’m so grateful for all of the things that he’s passed onto my life.
Brotherhood was a major theme in the documentary, especially concerning your story. Why is that crucial in hula?
In a hālau, your hula siblings are a source of reassurance. We look to each other for guidance and support, knowing that even though I am so tired, you’re tired too. But we have each other, so we keep going. In our hālau, there’s our hula siblings and our kumu is the parent. The bonds that you have are very important, they’re the key to accomplishing anything.
What was your reaction to seeing the film?
They had a preview for the kumu and everyone involved and the feedback was so overwhelmingly positive. We were so blown away. It showed what we really wanted to show. Unless you’re in it—unless you’re a dancer or a kumu—you don’t really know much about what goes on beyond the stage. Not even our families get to be that involved. And so for the camera crews to be able to come up as close as they were is a good insight to have.
I know each dancer is different, but I think a lot can agree that commitment is a big thing.
The training leading up to Merrie Monarch can be harrowing. What has been the most difficult aspect for you?
I know each dancer is different, but I think a lot can agree that commitment is a big thing. Especially during the months leading up to Merrie Monarch, this becomes your priority. It’s hard when you get older and life ends up happening. There are so many other things that you have to juggle. Yet you know that this has to be done. Putting in time reassures your brothers and sisters; it shows you’re not just coming in to eat dessert. You’re here to help make the food, set the table. And for each other to see everyone else who is going to be enjoying the final meal is also doing it, it bounces back the encouragement. We’re all doing it together.
We’re doing it to perpetuate our culture, to share the love of what we do.
What has been the most rewarding part of training?
The experience—everything that leads up to the competition. Those seven minutes on stage, it’s the dessert for sure. It’s the cherry on top, but the cherry on top of a whole mound of ice cream and banana. The whole banana split, right? Everything leading up to that cherry for me is that whole journey. And that’s why a lot of us keep going back. All these protocols and all the excursions that we do, being with each other and just laughing and making memories and kind of just striving for a goal together. I love that. I always miss it afterwards.
You do this whole year of preparation for seven minutes on stage. What’s it like finally getting there, performing in front of the best of the best?
It’s an honor. It’s such an honor and such a privilege. It is just such an amazing feeling to just be on that stage because not everyone has that opportunity. Not every dancer and not every hālau can say they’ve competed. Knowing how selective it is really shows how blessed you are to be a part of something that not everyone can be a part of. At the same time, it’s also because we’re doing it for much more than just those seven minutes. We’re doing it to perpetuate our culture, to share the love of what we do.
How did it feel to win first place?
(Laugh) It’s always nice to hear that. But even though everyone is striving for that, it’s just a small nick of why you’re doing it. But it does feel good. It is nice to be in that place. We’re so grateful that our work has paid off. But even the other times where we don’t [win], we’re also just as grateful because we’re doing it for our culture.
Stills from “Ka Huaka‘i: The Journey to Merrie Monarch” and courtesy of the Merrie Monarch Festival.