Witness to royalty
by Donica Kaneshiro | May 11, 2022
(Hawaiian diacritical marks included to appreciate the full story.)
I remember going to Lei Day festivities at Kapiʻolani Park back in small kid days and seeing the Lei Court greeting guests, poised and regal, a real-life queen and princesses. I never gave much thought to what went into claiming those crowns. The women were so lovely, I assumed it must be a beauty pageant of sorts.
When our own Nina Agbayani volunteered to compete this year, I learned quickly that there was more to being Lei Queen than grace and a lovely smile.
I watched Nina journey through a full day of cultural demonstrations — speeches in both English and Hawaiian, creating an intricate lei and dancing hula — all while exhibiting poise, grace and personality.
“I knew I was going to be challenged by it. And that was part of the reason, besides the cultural aspect, was to challenge myself to see if I could do it,” Nina told me after the event concluded.
Nina also embraced the competition as the opportunity to showcase and advance her heritage, as she has all her life, through activities like hula, paddling and pāʻū riding.
“I think a lot of us that are part Hawaiian, we have a lot of pride in that,” Nina explained to me. “We have that kuleana to perpetuate whatever it is that we’re into, because otherwise how are our youth going to know how to do it.”
Since COVID suspended the in-person competition in 2020, and the event went virtual last year, it was a joyful return to in-person festivities March 5, with face coverings and other safety measures in place for both contestants and audience.
From the blowing of the conch shells marking the start of the day to the closing refrains of “Hawaiʻi Aloha,” the event was a celebration of Hawaiian traditions.
In the lei-making competition, contestants displayed the variety of styles, techniques and floral options they had mastered. Nina opted for “dainty flowers in spring colors” that had her toiling until the last minute to finish twisting together her tiny, delicate sprigs of soledad, aster, hydrangea and leather leaf.
In her English speech, Nina spoke of Hawaiian values, including ‘ohana.
“We have our immediate families as ʻohana, but we also have ʻohana in hālau, at church, at work and even here at Lei Court. My ʻohana is the reason that I have the courage to be a Lei Court contestant today,” she said.
As the scores for the contestants were being tallied, Lei Court royalty from years past and kumu hula in the audience took to their feet to dance in impromptu performances in the aisles of Kapolei Hale accompanied by a quartet of Hawaiian musicians.
Although Nina did not receive a spot on the Lei Court, she still values the experience and hopes others will follow her example and join the competition in years to come.
“If I can do it, anybody can do it, because this is something way outside of my comfort zone. Overall, it was good fun,” Nina told me.
I felt honored to witness the overwhelming talent on display by all the participants, both on stage and off. But more than that, I felt honored to be a part of the resilient spirit of aloha in the room.
While all the participants are still lovely, Lei Court selection is so much more than I imagined. It’s a celebration of the Hawaiian practices and values preserved and passed on through generations. And that has never seemed more beautiful than now, after two years of social distancing.
Watch this video below to learn with Nina how to make a poepoe style lei.
Donica Kaneshiro is a communications consultant at Hawaiian Electric Company.