43RD MERRIE MONARCH FESTIVAL
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Aisha Kilikina Kanoelani Valmoja (Halau Na Pua Kukui from Honolulu) performed last night during the kahiko portion of the Miss Aloha Hula competition. CLICK FOR LARGE
Dancers stoke year's fires
The Merrie Monarch has evolved into a far-reaching, focused effort
HILO » When the Merrie Monarch Festival was created 43 years ago, a gleam in the eye of Hilo merchants, the event featured such activities as street dancing, barbershop singing, a beard-growing contest and a host of attractions including a grogge shoppe. Some of these events required extensive pre-game psyching; others required no effort at all.
A half-dozen years later, the festival morphed into something simpler and more powerful under the firm hand of Auntie Dottie Thompson -- a kind of world series of hula, part sporting event, part pageant, part theological be-in, reveling in the memory of the Hawaiian king who rescued hula from the dustbin of cultural history.
These days, the entire event requires pre-game psyching, and focused effort is a constant.
The festival attracts halau from as far away as Dallas and as near as down the street in Hilo -- some highly accomplished, others less so. (The official opening night on Wednesday featured largely amateur halau noted for their enthusiasm more than anything else.)
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Bernice Alohanamakanamaikalanimai Davis-Lim performed last night during the kahiko portion of the Miss Aloha Hula competition. Davis-Lim won the title of Miss Aloha Hula with 1,164 points. CLICK FOR LARGE
Held as usual under the arch of the Edith Kanaka'ole Tennis Stadium, this year's true competition opened last night with Melveen Leed singing a solo version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," then urging a sing-along of "Hawai'i Ponoi."
Etiquette is strict here. Emcee Kimo Kahoano publicly berated someone who took a cell phone call during the competition.
The stands were filled with Japanese hula devotees dressed in identical muumuus. And if you look closely, the whole event is stitched together with miles of gray duct tape.
The festival actually starts nearly a year in advance. Halau practice and choreograph down to the smallest movement detail, design costumes appropriate to the dance, review practices on videotape as if they were post-game films, while kumu watch the ranks for that young lady who might blossom into a potential Miss Aloha Hula.
It is preparation, putting on their hula face for the most intensive weekend of the year and, for some, of their lives.
"It comes together when we step off the airplane in Hilo," said kumu Olana Ai, from Halau Hula Olana from Puuloa, Oahu. "We've become a team at that point; you can almost see the kids grow together. It's magic. And good fun when we eat together, too!"
One tradition upheld by many halau is a visit to the historic volcanic rim of Kilauea. Kumu Aloha Delire of Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa O Laka from Heeia, Oahu -- well known throughout the competition as the first Miss Aloha Hula, who fielded three daughters who won the event -- has been making the pilgrimage for 33 years.
She and her dancers winced slightly as they trudged across lava shards in bare feet.
"Hey, this is the home of Pele. You remove your shoes in someone's home," she explained. "It's a sign of respect. The ti leaf offerings are all green and return to the earth -- that's also a sign of respect for nature. No twist ties; use hau fiber string.
"The power in hula comes from within you. It has to. But here" -- she gestured to the steaming landscape where new land is created -- "it rises from the earth and enters you."
A stinging, cold wind snatched away the chanted words and hurled them into the volcano, while bare feet pressed smoothed circles in the scree. Above, a white iwa frigate bird hovered motionless over the group, a long way from home in the ocean.