by: PHOTO: MARY ALICE KAIULANI MILHAM - The gracious ladies include (from left) Malia Myers, Lollie De Best, Malani Albano, Veronica Pimental and Lauae Hansen.

It’s Thursday morning at Kaleinani O Ke Kukui hula studio. A group of excited hula dancers gather around a conference table, strategizing for their upcoming May Day Pageant at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Vancouver, Wash.

On the first Saturday in May, according to Hawaiian tradition, one of them will be honored as May Queen, the others as her Royal Court of princesses.

They chatter about the costumes and the flower lei they’ll wear, giggling and teasing about who needs what size dress ordered. One of them blames her dress size on her “chi chis,” and they burst into laughter, like schoolgirls.

Only these students are somewhat past their school days.

They’re the “gracious ladies” of Kaleinani O Ke Kukui; the stars of the show at this year’s Ke Kukui Foundation’s May Day Arts and Crafts Festival.

The business at hand — how to dye their costumes — is interrupted by the arrival of a tall dancer with short black curls and a bright smile: “Aunty Laua’e,” this year’s May Day Queen. Aunty Laua’e Hansen is a few minutes late. No one cares.

Being May Queen at this point in Aunty Laua’e’s life is a little like winning the lottery twice. Her first May Queen title came when she was in the third grade at Waiakea Waena Elementrary School in Hilo, Hawai’i.

“To be May Queen at my age is just awesome, wonderful,” she says. “And to do this again when I’m 80 years old?”

Being called “Aunty” is another perk that comes with age, a token of respect imbedded deep in Hawaiian cultural tradition.

And although they’re more likely to be grandmothers or even great-grandmothers, these hula students are as vivacious as any class of girls anywhere in the world.

“Because we are so few, we can laugh,” Aunty Laua’e says. “And yeah, we’re older and we don’t have the inhibitions like the younger ones.”

A fresh eruption from the doorway proves her point. It is Aunty Pat Naeole’s birthday, and the chorus of “Happy Birthday!” reverberates from hula sister to hula sister.

Lucky for them, their teacher, “Aunty Deva” Leinani Yamashiro, isn’t too stern.

Inside her hula studio, she’s as full of mischief as her students, playfully urging them to give their dance meaning as she warms them up with a gentle island mele (song).

When their warmup is pau (finished), she switches her iPod to play the number they will dance on May Day, “For You a Lei,” a 1929 classic dripping with the romantic allure of the islands.

The iPod croons, “A lei of love, I give to you” and the dancers offer the leis draping their shoulders to an imaginary audience.

Yamashiro, leading them, wants more: “I want you to look! Look at somebody there!”

The next line goes, “to think of me when I am blue,” and hands glide head to toe along their curves.

“Bring out your sexy here,” Yamashiro prompts.

This gets them smiling, which is what she wants most: smiling dancers dancing their dance with aloha.

If you go

What: May Day Arts and Crafts Festival and the Gracious Ladies’ May Day Pageant and Royal Court, plus a full day of Hawaiian and Polynesian music and dance, arts and crafts, and food.

Who: Presented by the Ke Kukui Foundation. Based in Vancouver, Wash., the organization’s mission is to preserve and share Hawaiian/Polynesian arts and culture by promoting education in literature, language, music and dance.

When: Saturday, May 4, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Where: Thomas Jefferson Middle School, 3000 N.W. 119th St., Vancouver.

Admission: $5 at the door, $1 off with coupon or with your handmade entry for the festival’s lei-making contest (to be submitted by 1 p.m.). Children (and grandchildren) 10 and younger get in free.


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