"Hula is the art of Hawaiian dance, expressing everything we hear, see, smell, taste, touch and feel. That’s what hula is to me, and to anybody I’ve trained."
—Robert Cazimero, master teacher of Halau Na Kamalei
From tourist kitsch to old Hollywood movies, many people are familiar with romanticized images of women dancing the hula in Hawaii. While few are aware of the sacred traditions of the dance, the role of male hula dancers has long been overshadowed by Western concepts of gender and sexuality. From ancient times, when men learned the dance along with the martial arts of battle, to the suppression of the dance under missionary ban, the hula survived underground for many years until the cultural renaissance of the 1970s.
In 1975, at the height this revival, master hula teacher Maiki Aiu Lake asked her student, legendary entertainer Robert Cazimero, to open a school for only male dancers. With six young high school students, Robert Cazimero founded Halau Na Kamalei, and it suddenly became ”hot” for men to dance hula again. Celebrating the halau’s (school's) 30th anniversary, NA KAMALEI: The Men of Hula tells a story of Hawaiian pride and examines male roles in Hawaiian culture, both past and present.
Blending dance and culture with the personal stories of the men, the film follows the dancers—who range in age from 18 to 55 years old—as they return to the largest hula competition in the world. Often called the “Superbowl of Hula,” the stakes are high at the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival. Though the school won over 30 years ago in 1975, the competition today typically favors women or the younger, more physically chiseled men’s groups. These men, many of whom are the oldest in competition, instead seek not to win, but to dance with pride and masculine grace.
From the grueling rehearsals and nervous last minutes backstage to the preparations of their leis and offerings to the goddess of the volcano, Na Kamalei’s exciting return to the stage thrusts male hula dancers into the spotlight once again. In a ”rare victory” for a men’s group, Robert and his men sweep the awards with their warrior-like dancing. NA KAMALEI: The Men of Hula highlights the men’s ageless joy of dancing to reveal a renaissance that is not fading, but continuing the proud legacy of men performing the art of hula.
Filmmaker Lisette Marie Flanary provided updates in April 2008 on what the members of Halau Na Kamalei have been up to since filming ended.
I was back in Honolulu in March 2008 working on a new documentary project entitled One Voice about the Kamehameha Schools Song Contest. On my last day in town, I got to visit Robert and the halau during one of their practices, and I was really happy to see ”the new boys” as Robert calls them. There are six new dancers that were invited to join Halau Na Kamalei, and two of them are sons of men featured in the film, and one is a brother. It was really amazing to see them, the next generation, dancing with the guys.
HNK will be celebrating its 33rd birthday this June and is still going strong. Last year, I was on O’ahu for the halau birthday and got to spend a day with everyone up at Paumalu (this time without a camera!).The day at Paumalu was beautiful—eating, talking story, swimming in the ocean and of course, drinking beer with the boys. They truly make me feel like ‘ohana, or family, whenever I see them.
Last year at the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, there was another kane (male) sweep, which I thought was really exciting. Halau I Ka Wekiu, under the direction of Kumu Hula’s Michael Casupang and Karl Veto Baker, who were students of Robert’s, won first place in all divisions to place first overall. Sound familiar? They said that they just wanted to represent their kumu (teacher), Robert, and wow, they were fantastic. I thought it was kind of funny that the newspapers were still saying it was “a rare occurrence” for a men’s group to win the overall because suddenly it is starting to seem more like a trend to me. I think it’s great that the men are back in the spotlight again.
Robert also has a lot going on with his music career. The Brothers Cazimero have been recording music for 35 years and are still at the forefront of contemporary Hawaiian music. He is always traveling, doing shows and concerts or recording a new album. After recording 36 albums and earning a Grammy nomination for the last one, Robert and his brother Roland are being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Honolulu Academy of Recording Arts this year.
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