Thursday, October 17, 2002

Children will dance in a non-competitive hula festival created to honor the memory of Princess Ka'iulani.

Brothers absorbed
with a love for hula

By John Berger

Some comedians enjoy making kumu hula jokes, but for James Dela Cruz, hula is no laughing matter. He and his younger brother, Michael, have spent most of their lives absorbed in the study of Hawaiian music and dance. They've enjoyed learning, performing and sharing their knowledge, and they've suffered through bitterness and back-stabbing that can come into play when money or competition interferes with a love for the art.

"I hate to go to competitions, but I love to go to hula festivals," James said.

The brothers' Na Opio 'O Ko'olau will be one of nine halaus performing Saturday at the eighth annual Princess Ka'iulani Keiki Hula Festival. The noncompetitive festival is part of a series of cultural activities held to honor the princess.

"This festival, because it's not a competition, is a big stepping stone for our halau," James said. "For many of these 'babies,' it will be their first time on stage in costume. ... It reflects back to our experiences from that age and as we were growing up.

"Winning a trophy can be a blessing, but it can be a burden because with a trophy comes an expectation (of repeat wins)," he said.

James, left, and Michael Dela Cruz let their love for hula guide them.

THE BROTHERS burst on the Waikiki entertainment scene in 1981 when Don Ho invited them to be part of his show. They quickly made names for themselves as dancers and vocalists: The brothers' hula to "Holo Ka'a" was a crowd-pleaser, and so was their falsetto rendition of "Kalama'ula."

The two youngest of nine children, they were encouraged to perform from the time they could walk. They learned to sing four-part a cappella harmony as members of their grandmother's church choir, picked up hula basics by tagging along to their sisters' hula lessons, and sang at family parties and camp-outs. They learned "Holo Holo Ka'a" from an aunt and danced it at a family gathering when they were still in elementary school, and spent most of one summer camping on the beach with about 30 cousins.

That was the summer James learned to play guitar, Michael learned ukulele and they met kumu hula Sam Naeole, founder of the Hula Halau O Kamuela. James was impressed that most of the dancers "were Hawaiian from Waimanalo, they weren't Japanese ... or mix-mix. That really, really opened our eyes ... and inspired us."

When a local halau needed drummers, James and Michael stepped forward. Even though it meant a long bus ride, they went early so they could absorb the dancers' training, as well. At Castle High School they appeared in the American musical theater productions of Ron Bright.

"There are so many people who have come into our lives (that) I call our kumu (teachers)," James said. "Mr. Bright was one. Our grandmother was our first, our mom was our second, our Auntie Mattie was our third because she taught us our first hula, and then Aloha Dalire became our first kumu hula. We told her that years later, and she wondered how we could say that, and what she didn't realize was that we would go early (for drumming lessons) and watch her teach her girls, and Mike and I could go home and do exactly what she was trying to get the girls to do who were our age. We were each other's teachers.

"And someone real, real important to Michael was Ihilani Miller, who did the May Day programs at King Intermediate. She became like Michael's second mom, taught us our first chant and our first kahiko, 'Aia La O Pele.'"

THE DELA CRUZ brothers founded their own halau, "by accident," James said, in 1977, when he, Michael and some of their cousins formed a group to entertain at a family party. Michael sang, James played ukulele and served as the master of ceremonies, and the cousins danced. Their early repertoire consisted of hapa-haole songs like "Beautiful Kauai" and "Hanalei Moon."

"We didn't realize that what we were doing could be judged (negatively) because it just came so naturally for us in our family -- if you wanted to do something, you just did it," James said. "The focus was to perform ... and the enjoyment of doing it. Our mom was always there saying, 'Don't let them tell you no. If in your na'au and pu'uwai -- your stomach and your heart, especially your stomach -- this is what you believe you're supposed to do, and you're doing it for the right reasons, then do it.'"

In 1982 the brothers were introduced to hula legend George Naope. Their initiation to the kumu hula world was an unsettling one as James and Michael were called up to perform, then invited to sit with Naope, who questioned them at length about their genealogy.

James sensed hostility among the other kumu hula.

"It was kind of sad for me and Michael because we didn't mean it to be that way, but it came out that way -- 'Who are these two, and why are they dancing the hula?' -- the crab in the bucket thing," he said.

James said they hit it off with "Uncle George," just as they had with Don Ho.

"When we met Don, it changed our whole life," he said. "I learned so much working for him that people wait for their whole lives to experience. The most important people in the whole world would come to the show, and I'd be singing for them because I happened to be in the right place."

AT THE END of 1981, Ho was offered a deal at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Dome that didn't include the Aliis -- or the Dela Cruz Brothers.

"We thought it was the end of our career, but we didn't realize it was like the beginning," James said.

They continued to distinguish themselves performing with Sydette Sakauye, with Dick Jensen in Tahiti, and then with Loyal Garner, but an invitation to enter Merrie Monarch in 1983 forced them to them to choose between showroom glitz and the Merrie Monarch's traditionalism.

They went to the Big Island hula festival, and while they found it to be a valuable learning experience, it was also one they felt was tainted by "intense negative energy." They didn't return to the festival until 1992.

In 1993 the brothers found themselves at the center of another tempest when one of their dancers performed hula kahiko (ancient hula) topless at Merrie Monarch, after researching what women wore in Waipio Valley before Western influence.

A combination of a kapa wrap, maile leis and the dancer's long hair covered the dancer's breasts as completely as a bra, James said. Even so, it was a move regarded at the time as disrespectful and sensationalist.

James was embroiled in another brouhaha later that year when he asked if judges at the World Hula Festival could have information sheets during the competition. "I asked how we could expect the judges to memorize 30 performances in three different days, and memorize what each person is supposed to be wearing ... (I was told) that it wasn't necessary, (but) I said that it happened to me already (at Merrie Monarch) and I didn't want it to happen to anybody else," he said.

"That information went back ... as if I was dogging the Merrie Monarch ... and all I wanted to do was protect the other halaus. It's like for nine years now I've been carrying this burden.

"To this day, I don't know how I can tell my side because we were always taught to not create negative energy. ... I need to let (some of the people who took offense) know this is what I'm feeling," James said.

The brothers' shared love of hula and Hawaiian music remains their inspiration and spiritual foundation in spite of the criticisms.

"When we sing and dance is when we feel most alive," James said. "As instructors our goal is to instill that in our dancers -- to feel most alive when you can share these stories of love, compassion (and) sharing."

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