SUSTAINING THE LINEAGE: Kumu Hula Kawika Alfiche shares the multi-faceted training of a Kumu Hula

By Rob Taylor

Hawaiian dancers, blue background
Photo by RJ Muna








THE 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) represented many things to many people in its time, but one of the most notable outcomes of the festival was that it introduced the Hula dance and music form to the United States. Hawaii became a territory of the United States in 1898, but it was through the Exposition that mainland Americans were able to interact with some of the culture of the islands. This exposure made Hawaiian music incredibly popular, and only a year after the Exposition, Hula music recordings, many featuring the Ukulele, outsold all other styles of music purchased in the United States.

This June, the Rotunda Dance Series continues to celebrate the PPIE’s centennial with performances of both traditional Hawaiian dance and music by Halau o Keikiali’i and Halau ‘o Ku’ulei, two Bay-area based Halaus (Halau roughly translates to “school” or “group”) that are sustaining traditions. Recently I sat down to chat with the Kumu Hula of Halau o Keikiali’i, Kawika Keikiali’ihiwahiwa Alfiche about his background and their performance at the event.

The son of mixed Hawaiian/Filipino parents who both worked for the Airlines, Kawika was born in San Francisco, but grew up with strong Hawaiian connections: “My parents brought us up the way they were brought up…the food, the culture and etiquette, everything was done in the Hawaiian and island traditions.

Kawika Alfiche, in a crown and necklace made of leaves
Photo by RJ Muna

Because his parents worked for the airlines, Kawika was able to easily travel there to spend a great deal of time in Hawai`i where, “all of my cousins, and all of my aunts danced, and the uncles all cooked but none of the men really danced, but it was something I wanted to do.” While his desire to dance was not exactly forbidden, it wasn’t encouraged (“I think my dad would have preferred it if I continued sports”), and Kawika didn’t begin formal Hula training until high school – ”because I could take myself to Hula.”

I used the word ‘professional’ while asking about the decision to devote himself to Hula full time, and Kawika stepped back from the term (“It makes it sound like a job.”). He tells me that in terms of dedicating so much of his life to Hula, that “I didn’t really make a decision. I danced.”

Hawaiian culture developed over a thousand years before it came to the United States, and understanding Hula (even in the very limited way an outsider like me can understand it) means grasping a sense of how the form was cultivated over time, which ultimately requires an appreciation for the role lineage plays in the development and evolution of Hula. One doesn’t learn “Hula,” the exact same way from each teacher—one follows a distinct lineage that is passed from teacher to student over time, and each lineage reflects the style and method of each Kumu Hula (master teacher).

To become Kumu Hula within a lineage, a dancer goes through an “`uniki,” or graduation process with a Kumu Hula whom they have studied under. However, the terms of the training and the `uniki are set by that older Kumu—there’s no formal Hula college, or set curriculum. The knowledge (dance, music, lei making, prayers, chants, etc.), is largely the same, but how it is passed on can be vastly different.

Kawika’s journey is a fascinating example of the complex pathways that a dedicated dancer can take. The first Kumu he trained with was Tiare Maka-Olanolan Clifford, who passed away in 1992. After that fell under the care of Harriet Keahilihau-Spalding. “Aunty Harriet” was from Keaukaha, and two years after mentoring Kawika she had Kawika start his Halau and made Kawika the Kumu Hula or leader.

As Kawika describes it, “I was very young—21. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it—it wasn’t even a thought. I was just doing what I was supposed to do. She said here’s the name of your group, and I’ll mentor you for as long as you feel you need.” The name of the group was, and still is, Halau ‘o Keikiali’ (“School of Keikiali’”— it was named for Kawika), and Kawika is still the Kumu.

I ask him about Keahilihau-Spalding’svision Halau o Keikiali’i, and he tells me that it was (and still is) a vision of the “halau as something that helps and supports the community.”

Part of that vision that was passed down to him meant that Halau o Keikiali’i wouldn’t participate as a contestant in the world of Hula competitions, which for some is the core reason to dance Hula. Kawika tells me that for some people in the Hula world, “there’s a sense that because my halau doesn’t participate in competitions, we must not be as good as other companies.”

But his reason for not participating is very specific: “I saw this cut-throat part of it, where it wasn’t as important to learn what the dance was about as it was to present the dance.” Kawika “would much rather spend my time in a ceremony than on stage in a competition. And there are lots of people willing [to participate in competitions], so there’s no need for me to be a part of that. I support competitions, I play in them, I help my friends who do it, but it’s not my deal.”

But not participating in competitions does not mean he has retreated from the world. He has traveled extensively internationally, sharing hula as a performer and teacher. This has been in large part the result of work he began with his last Kumu Hula: Rae Kahikilaulani Fonseca, a widely respected Kumu who had been a student of George Lanakilakeikiahiali’i Na’ope, one of the most respected Kumu Hula of the 20th century and a founder of the Merrie Monarch Festival, which is the Super Bowl of Hula dance competitions. Kawika trained under him from 1996 until Fonseca passed away in 2010, going through a formal uniki ceremony in 2007. Kawika was one of only six people to attain Kumu status under Fonseca in the 30 years he taught, and was the only one of the six who lived outside of Hawai’i

It was with Fonseca that Kawika also began taking Hula to new places. The national explosion of interest in Hula that began after the 1915 exposition ebbed and flowed throughout the 20th century as a global phenomenon. Kawika points out that “people have been dancing and singing to the songs from the 20s and 30s all around the world. Shirley Temple did it, Elvis did it–it was huge.” Fonseca had discovered that there were groups all over Mexico who were passionate about Hula as a result of this infusion into other cultural forms. Some Mexicans had also traveled to Hawai’i, learned some things and brought it back to Mexico. So Fonseca began traveling around Mexico and teaching his style of Hula.

Kawika began assisting him as part of his own training “[Fonseca] treated everyone he taught there as if they were his own students, and he provided them with foundational training they didn’t have from just studying popular Hawaiian dance,” that they had picked up through media representations or through brief visits to the islands. “You go [to those Mexican communities] today and when you watch them dance it’s all Kahikilaulani (Fonseca’s style of Hula). You can see it in their dances and their movements. They may not even know that, but they’re dancing our style because of the work he did.”

Kawika has continued to work in Mexico and in other parts of the globe. “All of my work is international or on the other side of the nation—New York, Boston, DC. I go to Japan every two months, and to Mexico every three or four months.” He’s planting seeds of Hula in these other locales, but letting the communities cultivate the tradition on their own: “It’s not for me to become their Kumu but to put them on a path so that one day they can find their own Kumu.”

This international expansion of Hula brings up the challenges of Hula as an evolving form. Kawika is pretty clear where he stands on the issue: “It’s 2015 Hula has to evolve, but the challenge is making sure it’s evolved by people who have a strong foundation in the culture and form. There’s lots of people making changes and evolving the dance, but they haven’t gone through a formal process of training.”

Kawika breaks it down for me in more specific detail: “Kaholo [a side-to-side movement] is one of the most basic movements in Hula, and maybe you have a glimpse of what Hula is after doing a Kaholo a million times.” The challenge comes when a new dancer/choreographer “has done a Kaholo 10 times, and then decide they are ready to start incorporating all of these other things into the form—that is a scary thing for me.”

Kawika describes his role and goals as a Kumu to me: “I think we have some
wonderful songs and chants that have been passed on through generations. My job is to completely share those things with my students so they are passed on to future generations, and to make sure they know these dances so well they don’t have to think about it when they do it. And there’s a way to present those dances and make them as interesting as anything else without other elements being added to it.”

As part of his upcoming performance at the Rotunda Dance Series, Kawika and his Halau will focuses on songs of the Ukulele and song from the era that came after the 1915 PPIE. “I grew up dancing to these songs and I hated them (laughs)—they were so corny and felt so kitschy at the time. I want to dance to songs in Hawaiian, I wanted to express myself in Hawaiian songs and words. But it’s a definite bona fide era of Hula. Now, I love playing them and singing these songs.” Before the Ukulele piece, they will open the show with Hula Pahu— ceremonial songs done on the Pahu Hula (shark skin drum).

As is the case with many of the artists I speak to who carry a tradition forward, I ask Kawika about the pressure of sustaining tradition, and he agrees that there is pressure. He shares a Hawaiian word—the Kuleana: “It’s your duty. Some people like to translate that as responsibility, but I like to translate as duty—no choice” But the way he describes Kuleana sounds liberating, and his tone resolutely upbeat, as he concludes “at the same time, I am really, really honored to have been chosen.”

Rob Taylor is a writer and arts administrator working in the San Francisco Bay Area.