Image of Pi'ilani Smith performing a hula kahiko.

‘Ike Wai grad student performs at Merrie Monarch for second year in a row

Photos by Keola Arakaki​​​​​​​

Bruised knees, blistered, bloody feet and physical exhaustion are not what most picture at the mention of hula, a Polynesian dance form known throughout Hawai‘i. Hula is also not what most imagine when thinking of the University of Hawai‘i research project ‘Ike Wai but the unlikely pairing came together at the Merrie Monarch Festival held April 21 to 27 in Hilo, Hawai‘i where ‘Ike Wai team member Thomas Piʻilani Wah Wai Smith performed.

Smith who has performed the past two years at what is considered the Olympics of hula is a Hilo native and University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa urban and regional planning program graduate student.

He works with Hui ʻĀina Momona Program Associate Specialist Dr. Gregory Chun in community engagement efforts for ‘Ike Wai, a National Science Foundation Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) project that studies Hawai‘iʻs aquifers to ensure its future water security.

Pi‘ilani Smith, left performs a hula kahiko with Hālau Hi‘iakaināmakalehu at the 2019 Merrie Monarch Festival. (Photo by Keola Arakaki​​​​​​​)

Smith who describes his work with Chun as the first line of communication between the project and community members helps to build and maintain community relationships, to include coordinating field access with landowners. Chun and Smith engage with the community to inform them about the project, its research and mission and receive feedback about community needs and challenges.

“Working in diverse communities such as we have here in Hawaiʻi requires a high level of cultural, historical, and geographical sensitivity. Piʻilani’s hula practice helps reinforce those sensitivities in very real ways. His hula kāhiko at this year’s Merrie Monarch wove a story of the biota, weather, and significant events in Ewa and Puʻuloa during Kamehameha IVʻs reign that has informed our contextual understanding of the lands comprising the Pearl Harbor Aquifer”, said Chun.

Pi‘ilani Smith, left and Lance Kaimana Namihira perform a hula auana at the 2019 Merrie Monarch Festival. (Photo by Keola Arakaki​​​​​​​)

In 2017, Smith joined Hālau Hi‘iakaināmakalehu led by Kumu Keʻano Ka‘upu IV and Lono Padilla. The hālau has performed at Merrie Monarch for the past six years with this year being only the second time men from the hālau have performed. As something he grew up doing, Smith expressed how hula allows him to keep in touch with his Hawaiian culture.

Along with his hālau, Smith faced many of the physical demands required to dance at the level needed to perform at Merrie Monarch. He explained that a degree of athleticism is needed to achieve hula noho, a sitting hula that is deceivingly simple to the untrained eye but according to Smith is one of the most difficult types of hula. He recalled the blood-stained stage that served as evidence that hula is not for the faint of heart.

“Hula will bring you in for the right reasons”, said Smith when looking back at what drew him to the dance form. “It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done”, He said acknowledging both the physical and mental demands he endured to prepare for his performance.

“[Hula] teaches you the approach for the appropriate moment”, said Smith who admits to getting overwhelmed at times. Practicing as much as three hours per day five times a week, Smith balances his passion for dance with graduate studies and work with the ‘Ike Wai project.  

The dedication paid off for Smithʻs hālau as their members placed first in the 2019 Miss Aloha Hula and third in the Wahine ‘Auana Awards. Smith who walks away from the festival tired and in the midst of finals, does not take for granted the lessons heʻs learned through hula.