by Dawn Fraser Kawahara   © Dec. 2012

. . . Yes, feathers. Floating. . . beautiful, soft feathers. Like those of angel wings as often depicted, and then, too, our birds of Koke`e, the treasured jewels of our high mountain island.
An image to wake from, a spirit image to stay with me through the day.

The dream followed an evening of music, when I had watched my hula brother Jordan raise his clear tenor as he sang from his heart, it seemed, in the college ensemble’s Christmas concert. The music evoked angels, and then, synchronistically, a fluttering movement high in the apex of the church sanctuary caught my eye–a bird.

This little package of feathers and fluff seemed quite at home as it perched on a precariously angled corner of the high main beam, then flitted to the back of the church to settle as my attention was reclaimed by the music and a segment of hula presented by the Kaua`i Community College Hula Club. One kahiko chant dedicated to Emalani using feathered `ul§-ul§(gourd rattles) in pheasant colors stirred a memory of the very first Queen Emma Festival in the 1980s, in which we danced and chanted similarly. Feathers, again. The symbolic effect of the bird/spirit moments engraved itself to be played back after a night’s rest, to give me the spark that writers and artists often call “the muse” to write the deeper side of my Emalani 2012 involvement.

When I wrote my first draft of my experience with my hula family as part of the Ka `Imi Institute’s presenters during October’s 24th Annual Eo e Emalani i Alaka`i Festival in the lush meadow of Koke`e, my initial piece from a daytime consciousness was anything but lush. Each approach I tried seemed like a standard press release–loaded with hum-drum facts. So I kept my ribbon-tied souvenir program beside my desk as a reminder, hoping and waiting for some inspiration. I waited through one month; through the next. Until the feathers vision!

This year’s dance presentation for our group was all about living feathers–those of the modest, sparrow-like Puaiohi, or endangered native Kaua`i thrush. We drew on the creative talent of several of our members, starting with our Ka `Imi’s eastside Kumu Hula Keahi Manea, who had written an original chant for her blessing of the Forest Bird Recovery Project ( that reintroduced the Puaiohi to our forest from a protected hatchery in cooperation with the Zoological Society of San Diego aviary in Volcano. Simply called “Puaiohi”, the chant tells how the shy birds return to the Kaua`i forest as “expatriates” returning home, and hoping to “cavort”, nest and produce eggs for a new generation as they are accepted by the remaining colony members, and are fed the berries they love as they, in turn, pick and feed those berries to their kin.

Kumu Manea came out of retirement to plan the presentation and work on a choreography for “Puaiohi” with Kumu Hula Puamohala Kaholokula and Institute president Kumu Heu`ionalani Wyeth. Music for a mele, song, was developed from the original oli in cooperative work by musician Robbie Kaholokula. The original hula and mele were taught to us–the dancers and musicians. Numerous rehearsals and refinements, including decisions concerning appropriate costuming, preceded the Oct. 13th Festival opening number.

Members of our sister halau, “Aunty Pua’s” Halau Mohala o ka Pua Hau Hele joined with us once again for our Emalani special number, Kumu Kaholokula and Kumu Manea working with us at rehearsals. We were challenged to “become birds,” to “put on our feathers” and “show our stuff” in a courting display within the dance, resting in the shade of the koa trees, sheltering from the winds, gathering berries and feeding each other. The original choreography followed the verses until, at the chant’s conclusion, we gave thanks to the manao, forethought, of the newcomers who had the foresight to take breeding pairs of endangered birds from Koke`e and create the sanctuary that would help to increase their numbers before bringing them back to reintroduce them into our forest.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we were all dreaming or envisioning feathers, for this spirit of the birds followed us through the sewing and preparation of costumes, car pool planning, and then up the mountain to our meadow rehearsal the night before the big day, when all would come together, including members of our sister Halau Hula Alaka`i i Malu Ulu `o Lele of Maui under the directorship of  Kumu Hula Sharon Ioana Bailey Balidoy; the staff and volunteers of Hui o Laka/Koke`e Museum ( the gathering of na poe hula joining us on Kaua`i with groups from other Hawaiian Islands, their families, musicians, and community volunteers.

My hula family wove the palapalai ferns gathered earlier into adornments to complement our lei hulu (feather leis) late into the night. Meanwhile, we practiced chanting our tributes to Queen Emma and singing our “Puaiohi” mele as our hands were busy. When the lei were completed, some of us rehearsed our dance movements again before falling into our bunks. Morning came early; we rose to be ready for a final rehearsal held on the Ka `Imi cabin grounds.
Following the ritual of dressing, we entered into the Kanaloahuluhulu meadow, and the exciting beginning of the Festival. I was watching the row of evergreens that separate the high road from the meadow border, and also the tall old Monterey pines that shade the Queen’s tent area, looking for birds, and listening. I think birds were on all of our minds, even as we listened to the opening musical numbers and awaited the always exciting arrival of this year’s chosen “Queen Emma” and her attendants, who follow the original royal party and arrive on horseback.

The Queen and her party dismounted, and settled in the flower and leaf-bedecked tent, the introductions were made, and we were on. This is what all those hours of lessons and learning were for. The energy of the group was electric as we walked barefoot into position in our modest (like the Puaiohi) green, brown and pale yellow costumes. There was no talk, no whisper, but smiling eye contact, nods. Then we became the “Puaiohi”.  There was a moment when each of us, I believe, reached that transformative place where dance movement and music expression have flown from the brain into the body. traveling into the freed-up realm where the dancer becomes the dance, the music, and in this case, the bird. And the birds all created a working harmony, as needed for survival in reality.

Acting in the Kaua`i native thrush group, I mimed putting on my feathers, “showing my stuff”, saw the other “birds’ ” eyes smile and accept me, and received the imaginary berries fed to me; in turn, I plucked berries and made as if I were feeding the reintroduced bird cousins in complete acceptance. And we all took off to “fly, fly, fly”. . .
Such a “high”!  It takes several days to flutter back down to ground level, down the mountain from being a bird.

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