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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 21, 2001

Snowbird: In the spirit of the Merrie Monarch

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Her mother simply liked the 1970 song that Anne Murray sang:

The snowbird sings the song he always sings
And speaks to me of flowers that
will bloom again in spring

"She said if she had a daughter, she would have to name her Snowbird," said Snowbird Puananiopaoakalani Bento.

Snowbird Bento — runner-up in this year's Miss Aloha Hula contest — plays for a Kamehameha Schools' Concert Glee Club rehearsal.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Mom had no idea that the daughter who would arrive several years later really would have songs to sing, and be a person others look to for an encouraging smile.

"She is our ho'oulu," said Holoua Stender, the kumu hula who directs her hula halau. "It's a bona fide position, according to Emerson's book 'Unwritten Literature of the Hula.' It means 'to inspire.'

"Also, she calms the waters, whether there are any disturbances or not," Stender added. "If there are people missing, not coming to practice, she finds out what the problem is. She's the one who has the spiritual grace and the physical grace to smooth things out."

Bento, who will turn 26 on June 8, is the inspiration of Ka Pa Hula O Kamehameha, the official halau of the Kamehameha Schools that made its first trip to last month's Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition. And perhaps because she was able to find inspiration herself in the stories she told through hula, Bento fell a single point shy of winning the soloist's title.

Her performance of a chant about Queen Emma letting down her hair on her wedding night won her the award for Hawaiian language. It was a seated hula during which Bento freed her own chestnut mane from a tortoiseshell comb, one of the queen's favorite ornamentations. And her contemporary dance, a song of family love and hospitality in a Moloka'i home, was a picture of fluid grace.

The audience couldn't miss her skill as a dancer, but neither could they refrain from remarking on her physical size. Bento is a large woman, tall as well as stout, in a modern hula world that seems to favor the willowy figure.

Snowbird Bento
 •  AGE: 25.
 •  HOMETOWN: Nanakuli.
 •  POSITION: Hawaiian ensemble teacher, the Kamehameha Schools.
 •  FAMILY: Parents Terrence and Sterline Bento, a younger sister and two younger brothers.
 •  HER NAME: It's Portuguese, not Japanese, meaning "blessed."
"People told me, 'Even if you don't win, you will be shattering the image of what most people think a hula dancer should look like," she said.

Bento admitted to a little chagrin that she wasn't able to work more on her physical fitness, but it didn't overwhelm her attitude toward the competition.

"I wasn't expecting to be 120 pounds when I hit the stage, but I was expecting to be in better shape," she said. "But it was never a matter of weight for me.

"My whole thing was, Is this a hula competition? Then judge me on my hula."

Hula is "in my blood," said Bento, a 1993 Kamehameha graduate who is about a year short of her graduation ('uniki) ceremony awarding her the status of a kumu hula. Her family is a clan of musicians, both professional and church singers, as well as dancers.

Bento, born in Pauoa, studied hula privately from kumu hula Leimomi Ho before learning from Stender, Randy Fong and Wayne Chang at Kamehameha, which she's attended since seventh grade. But for the first two years there, she stopped hula and pursued a love of choral singing.

She joined the Concert Glee Club and, at a club camp, the students had to learn a hula. That's where she got her taste back for dance. In 1991, when Bento was a sophomore, the club held auditions for dancers to perform with the singers on a Pacific islands tour. Bento got a solo turn while performing on Rapa Nui, and her teachers certainly began paying her special notice.

Stender formed the halau in 1997, and three dancers — daughter Kawena, Bento and Kaleo Trinidad — were chosen as student leaders.

Kumu hula Sonny Ching met Bento on a 1998 trip to Kaho'olawe, where he was first impressed with her sing- ing. At the Merrie Monarch, he said, "I was again entranced by her beauty, raw energy and sheer talent. She was exquisite, elegant, smooth. She made each of her mele live!"

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Bento has given over much of her life to the campus, and not only with halau. Since graduation, she's been a temporary hire teaching Hawaiian ensemble, a job she maintains on top of Hawaiian studies classes at the University of Hawai'i. She's now at one of those career crossroads that defines twentysomethings starting out: Two separate job opportunities are presenting themselves that would take her in separate directions professionally, she said, but she declined to discuss the details.

The whirlwind of her existence quickened further last year, when the young halau received its invitation to the Merrie Monarch.

"Uncle Holoua asked me, 'You know that we have been invited to the Merrie Monarch ... I would love to have you represent us as Miss Aloha Hula,'" Bento recalled. "My jaw dropped ... I said, 'OK, all right, Uncle.'

"I didn't have any mixed feelings. When I agree to do something, I'm in for all of the pain, all of the joy, all of the struggle. I have to push myself 110 percent, and more."

And because the contest is limited to single women 25 and younger, this was her one and only attempt. Bento practically camped out at the Bishop Museum archives, researching her texts. She went to the Queen Emma Summer Palace to "look at her things," an exercise that she hoped would inform her performance of the wedding-night chant. Of course, she said, she also drew on her own instincts.

"It was supposedly just the mystique of a woman taking down her hair," she said. "You know, at the end of a day, when you want to relax?"

Some friends criticized her for choosing a seated hula ("People have always told me, 'You're big, but you can really dance," she said with a smile), but Bento knew the demands of such a hula noho can be filled only by someone who can move her body without the aid of her feet, all the while chanting, unsheltered by instrumental accompaniment.

Preparing the modern ('auana) song to Bento's standards meant interviewing the Lindsey family, descended from composer Helen Parker. They relayed the song's background to Bento so she'd understand its hidden meaning about overcoming adversity; it involves a family tragedy, but Bento will not disclose what she learned.

 •  Halau accepting new students

Ka Pa Hula o Kamehameha, under the direction of Holoua Stender, has opened new hula classes for men and women 13 and older. Classes will meet 5-7:30 p.m. Thursdays at the Ke'elikolani Performing Arts Center. Call: 842-8542.

Stender wished he understood the disparity in some of the judges' marks: Most were very, very high, but one in particular consistently graded Bento in the 60 percentile range. Unevenness like that easily could have cost her the competition, which finally was won by Hilo dancer Natasha Oda; Bento heard the gasps when the one-point difference was announced, but only learned later what the outcry had meant.

"I took a deep breath," she said, "then I let it go."

This is the kind of spiritual grace Stender has observed for years.

"She is very congenial," he said. "She's just wonderful. We're so lucky to have her in our halau."