An Interview with Kat Mische Elle
Leināʻala, share with us your story of Aloha and the adventure that was inspired by it.
I was born and raised in this little town of Kalāheo, on the island of Kauaʻi. I have two older brothers, and I was the baby, the only girl. My mom and dad were very supportive and committed to the hula culture because it encourages families to be a family.
The hula culture is at the root of our family’s principles. It’s who we are as Hawaiians; I have so many memories of love and support from my childhood because of it. Hula helped my parents to be parents and helped them to raise me.
Hula teaches you respect, and it teaches you hard work. It teaches you how to honor commitment and how to be humble. It teaches loyalty and how to praise others when it is deserved. This is what helped shape me to walk through this life.
Down the road from my home was a local kumu hula, her name was Aunty Kuʻulei Punua and she held classes weekly in our town. (In the Hawaiian language, the word “kumu” has many meanings. It can mean the base of something such as the trunk of a tree, a source, and a reason. In this sense, a kumu is a source or foundation. Kumu is also the general term for “teacher” because, in the Hawaiian worldview, teachers are the source of knowledge).
I was three years old when I began to learn the art of hula in my first hālau (A hālau, in translation, is a hula school).
By the time I was six years old, my first kumu had changed locations to teach, and then another kumu hula came into my town, and her name was Aunty Lovey Apana. She was very strict. I considered her the real deal because she connected to the culture.
This is when I began understanding and embracing my heritage deeper, and I never looked back. I danced for Aunty Lovey’s Hālau throughout my youth and participated in the Keiki (children) Hula competition on Oahu, and I traveled with her for a cultural exchange to Tonga.
I was with her for several years until I was in high school when her sister Beverly Apana Muraoka took over. I studied with Aunty Bev for two years until I graduated high school and left to attend the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.
But I knew the art of hula was my life’s calling.
While in Hilo, I immediately looked for a hālau (A hālau is a Hawaiian word meaning a school, academy, or group. Literally, the word means “a branch from which many leaves grow.”) to connect with so I could continue to learn.
I then discovered a known teacher on the Big Island, Rae Fonseca. I called him on the phone and said, “My name is Leināʻala, I’m from Kauaiʻ, and I’d love to study under you.”
(When introducing yourself to a new kumu and their hālau, you are to share where you are from and your hula lineage out of respect.)
He knew of Aunty Lovey and admired her greatly and welcomed me to his hālau.
Kumu Rae welcomed me and my Life completely changed to the next level. He gave me an entirely different glimpse into the hula. Every school and every hālau does things differently and both are correct. Neither one is wrong. It’s just different styles and different traditions.
They embraced me in Hilo, and my Kumu saw something in me, and he continued to share with me his knowledge of the craft. Kumu Rae taught me that “We don’t perform. We’re telling stories, manifesting, representing our kūpuna, (ancestors) and those that walked before us. We don’t perform”. He also taught me to be mindful of that philosophy in all aspects of Life. He instilled in me to remind myself every day that we are in the flow of spirit and the energy in everything around us, that I am (we are) connected to all of it.
In my first year with him in 1991, he selected me for his line in the Merrie Monarch Festival coming up in1992. (This is a yearly festival where dancers compete to win the title for best overall performance in the state of Hawaiʻi, also known as the Olympics of Hula. It honors King David Kalākaua, the “Merrie Monarch” for his patronage of the arts and is credited with restoring many Hawaiian cultural traditions during his reign, including the hula.)
This was a big deal to participate in and I was grateful and honored. The time I spent with his hālau shaped and inspired me to become a vessel of perpetuation, a leader in my world of hula. Upon returning home to Kauaʻi in 1995, I was guided to step into the role with the blessings of Kumu Rae to begin and lead my own hālau.
In your life, how do you define leadership?
Leadership for me is in the term of kumu; as a teacher, I’m the teacher. I’m the leader of my hālau. But there are so many other hats under that word. I become an aunty. I’m a therapist and I’m helping kids in the community with what they need as well.
Looking at everything over the past 25 years, it’s hard to be a good leader. It’s not just one word. It’s balance. It’s being compassionate and having integrity. To be a leader is to have sincerity with accountability and responsibility.
To be a leader is to be someone inspirational for others, as a guide and a mentor. Because as a Kumu, the community looks to you for answers.
I am inspired to motivate my students on multiple levels in their Life. I have about 200 students of all ages, encouraging them to dream big! Not only for their path with hula but to also dream big in their education, in their expressions of themselves, in their careers, in love, and in everything that being here has to offer.
How did 2020 affect you and your students?
The COVID lockdown canceled the Merrie Monarch festival for 2020, which led me to sit down and dig deeper and reflect on my Life and the community. I was clear that tomorrow is not guaranteed, and the hula is not guaranteed. I asked myself, “What can you do better, Kumu Leināʻala, to dig deeper, to be a better voice for our kūpuna?” (Kūpuna means grandparent, ancestor, and honored elder. In the Hawaiian culture, kūpuna were highly respected and seen as an important link as keepers of ancestral knowledge.)
What can I do better to carry what they left behind for us? It was an awakening for me. It had me look at everything. What is my goal before I leave this realm? What do I want to achieve?
There’s so much more I want to pass down to my students. So that when that time comes that I do leave, I want to make sure that I leave behind a legacy that is of the highest level, like what was left behind for me.
Despite the challenges Covid presented, I was determined to have my hālau return to participate in the Merrie Monarch Festival in 2021 and 2022. At the festival, there are approximately 24 performances. Out of the 24, 8 or 9 were men (kāne) groups, and the rest were women (wāhine). The first night is a solo competition. The second night is for the ancient hula, and everybody competes. The third day is the modern hula performance.
All the groups compete, and the seven judges choose the top 5 performers.
On the final day, the points that the hālaus collect over these days are then calculated then they are ranked, and the winner is selected.
In 2021, we took to the stage without an audience due to COVID regulations, and it was a beautiful journey. I was asked how we felt about performing the dances without an audience. I circled back to remind everyone that we were not performing. I told my troop, “We are transcending space and time, so let’s do just that!” I loved the intimacy of having the seven judges in the empty arena.
Fast forward to 2022, we returned to the Edith Kanakaʻole Stadium in Hilo and once again our purpose remained the same. Manifest. Bring your mele to life. The last thing I told my students before they went into the stadium was, ‘We’re picking those judges up and anyone who is watching and we’re taking them to Kauaʻi. We were dancing about Kauaʻi. We’re taking them to Kauaʻi with us. We’re whisking them out of the stadium”. The goal was to let them see Kauaʻi through our eyes and our Aloha for our home.
At the end of the final day, while floating on the high of all of us who have come together for this celebration, the judges announced,
“1st Place Wāhine Kahiko, 1st Place Wāhine ʻAuana & 1st Place Wāhine Overall, 1st Place Overall – Hālau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leināʻala with Kumu Hula Leinā‘ala Pavao Jardin.”
I was experiencing something like never before. This quest of focus, determination, and manifestation came to life right before us! Tears came down as I stood there with utmost appreciation to my kumu hula who paved the way for me.
It took a moment to let it sink in, and the gratitude I already had for life magnified once it did!
I believe that this happened because we were not performing. My hālau and I were living, breathing, and moving the essence of our lives and culture upon that stage so that the judges could see and feel it.
Tell me the top 5 things that can help put us back on track for success when we’re experiencing a lack of direction in our lives.
Peace. Take it one step at a time. Have faith. Believe in yourself.
Prayer. It is so important.
Navigate. You must learn to navigate the waters you are floating on and get to that destination.
Balance. during the lockdown, I decided to grab hold of my life physically, spiritually, and mentally and do a complete reboot.
Dream. Much of what I do comes to me in dreams or visions, enhancing my clarity. I need that.
When you look back, what was the first inspired ‘ah-ha’ moment you can recall that shows evidence that you were on the right track for your life?
It would have been when I graduated and came home from college.
I was sad to leave Hilo and my beloved Kumu Rae and Hālau Hula ʻO Kahikilaulani. My heart was torn but my kuleana or responsibility was to return home to take care of my mom who was ill.
After I returned home, I had a phone conversation with Kumu Rae. I told him that this couldn’t be the end of hula for me. I told him I could never study under anyone else.
I could never even imagine being in another hālau. I was 22 years old at this time and capable of going to another hālau. He said, ‘Well, how about this? Why don’t you try your hand at teaching? And I’ll help you. I’ll guide you from here in Hilo’. I said, “What do you mean? ‘And he said, ‘ first, go find your local senior center.”
I told him that the building next to my house was a neighborhood community center! He said, “Perfect, walk on over and introduce yourself.” That was the next greatest chapter that changed the rest of my Life. I walked over to the gathering of people that were there and said, “You guys want to learn how to hula?” And that’s how I started. With his guidance in teaching our kūpuna here in my town is why we’re here today. When we spoke on that call, Kumu Rae didn’t know that a kūpuna center was next to my home. The guidance leading me back home to Kauaʻi was profoundly understood from that moment forward.
How do you keep the inspiration flowing into your life?
Seeing the joy that hula brings to my students and their families feeds me with so much inspiration! My students inspire me to continue to serve and provide them not only with the knowledge that comes with the hula but also with whatever I can pay forward to enhance their growth for their future.
Who would you give gratitude and appreciation for in your life?
It starts with God first. I am so blessed that he gave me my parents. I’m so grateful because they truly are the foundation. It is said that it takes a village. I am blessed that my village spanned across a few islands with my Kumu Hula Rae Fonseca, Aunty Lovey, Aunty Bev, Aunty Kuʻulei Punua and everybody along the way.
Finally, I’m blessed with a fabulous husband. On our first date, he told me, “I have to tell you, I don’t know anything about the hula.” But because of my path, to my students, he has become Uncle Kumu. He is always here to support me. He’s the pillar next to me that keeps me grounded. I am very thankful for him.
How can the readers find out more about you?
Kaleimokihana.com. People can learn about the hālau and our new endeavors. You can also find me on IG at @leinaalajardin and on Facebook at Leina’ala Pavao Jardin.