Kumu hula Sonny Ching and kupuna Lilia Hale lead a prayer at a dinner preparing Ching's halau for Merrie Monarch. Photo by Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin

The Bond of Hula

By Burl Burlingame

THE MERRIE MONARCH FESTIVAL IS many things, but the centerpiece is the hula competition. The best halau from all over compete, and from the fray, winners emerge. Despite the emphasis on culture and aloha, those who compete would prefer to win rather than lose.

They rehearse all year in preparation for the event. As it draws near, the psychological pressure increases. How do the kumu prepare the inner dancer? We asked several.

Bonding grows out of shared experience, particularly if it isn't easy. Marines out of boot camp know this; so do the disciplined halau. "They have to work together as a team," said kumu Etua Lopes of Halau Hula Na Pua U'i O Hawai'i. "They have to breathe the same breaths, their heartbeats must be in sync."

And if one of the members begins to veer off course, it's "immediate ho'oponopono," said Lopes, referring to the Hawaiian practice of working out differences that's part open discussion, part peer pressure and part simple politeness. "It's very important to get them on the same path again. It's not easy. I know that they're 14-year-old girls, but we expect them to act like ladies."
Aloha Dalire's Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa 'O Laka uses ho'oponopono as "a kind of cleansing, to make things smooth," she said.

"After months of preparation, there's lots of stress, and we want the minds in tune, like an element, to put all things aside and be on the same wavelength."

At Lopes' halau, practice occurs three times a week, and can often run five hours. Beginning in January, attendance is mandatory. This kind of discipline, common at most halau, helps tie the dancers together as well.

Another common bonding element is the field trip. "It's important to take the kids to the areas where the chants were composed," said kumu Kaha'i Topolinski of Ka Pa Hula Hawaii. "It also helps to give them photographs of the old ali'i the chants are about, so they will seem as real people."

"The trips are essential to study our mele," said kumu Ellen Castillo of Puka'ikapuaokalani Hula Halau. "It motivates the students, because the 'feel' is there."

Halau Hula Olana members and family clean liko lehua, which will be used in making lei for Merrie Monarch. Photo by Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin

Some halau treat the excursions as field trips, others as solemn ceremonies. Kapu Kinimaka-Alquiza's Na Hula 'O Kaohikukapulani has a retreat in the mountains of Kauai, as well as to the seashore. "We wish to feel the life of the forest, of the goddess Laka, the serenity and peacefulness," said Kinimaka-Alquiza. "It's our bonding ritual."

Topolinski's troupe makes pilgrimages to the Royal Mausoleum to ask the blessings of the departed ali'i.

Dalire's halau has a traditional ho'ike as well, and runs through their material before family and friends. "Almost like a dress rehearsal," Dalire said.

"They can't help but feel closer together by practice," Castillo said. "We're all there for the same purpose, after all. Plus, meditation helps them focus, and they get a pep talk every day from me."

Castillo downplays the competitive aspects of the festival. "It's not good. It's better to share the friendliness, and to LEARN from the other halau," she said. "They're kids, and they want to win, and that makes them tense. But it's better just to do the best job you can do, so you can feel good about yourself. Once it's done, you can't turn the clock around."

"Oh, I give them plenty of pep talks, and plenty of scoldings," said kumu Mae Loebenstein of Ka Pa Hula 'O Kauanoe 'O Wa'ahila. "They need affirmations of goodness."

Some halau are stricter than others. "Hey, they're kids," Lopes said. "I can only enforce discipline when they're here. They have a social life, family, school, homework."

At Sonny Ching's Halau Na Mamo O Pu'unahulu, the kapu system has returned. "For two weeks before the festival, they are under kapu, to re-emphasize behavior," kumu Ching said. "Here is where we draw our strength. Food-wise, for example, we don't eat squid, because the squid is slippery. And it is kapu to touch the he'e lei, because he'e is the Hawaiian word for squid. Don't eat sugar cane, seaweed, certain kinds of fish." Before flying off to Hilo, Ching's halau has a bonding last supper with a menu of approved fare.

Also off-limits are booze and other narcotic substances or stimulants. "It's a good idea NEVER to partake," Ching said. And sex is forbidden, even between spouses, Ching said.

They have to breathe the same breaths,
their heartbeats must be in sync.

Etua Lopes
Halau Hula Na Pua U'i O Hawai'i

"It helps to purify ourselves, in the physical, but mostly in the spiritual," he said. "And then, truly, all we've learned will stay with us. You can't achieve without sacrifice."

On the other hand, the point is to "have fun," said kumu Paleka Mattos of Hula Halau O Kamuela. "Serious fun, which requires hard work, but these are girls who also have school, and some are going off to college. They have things on their minds, so I try not to be too strict.

"You know, local kids like to eat a lot! and they want to eat what their friends and family eat. So many of the kids are from different ethnic backgrounds that I feel I can't tell them what not to eat, or they won't function as well. Their bonding comes from working together and upholding the name of the halau."

Loebenstein's halau "kind of feed ourselves," she said. "The idea is to be healthy, so there's strength and power."

Lopes' halau sticks to a "Bio-Zone" diet prior to competition. "It's almost like that 'Waianae Diet,' " he said. "Healthy, good stuff. We don't want the kids weighed down. We go to Hilo a couple of days ahead, with kitchen workers. They make solid breakfasts, good fruits, hot cereals, lunches and dinners, and bring them to the kids. The kids never have to think about a meal all the way to Sunday morning."

The catholic strictness of some halau, as well as the journeys to seek the goodwill of departed Hawaiian royalty and the blessings of Hawaiian gods, seem almost religious in nature.

"We've don't believe in that!" said kumu Johnny Lum Ho of Halau Hula O Ka Ua Kani Lehua. "We're Christians, you know. We go about our daily work, and pray always. Our preparation is to pray, and that's what we do as the time draws near. We believe in God. The devil is like a roaring lion, out to get his prey, and he wants to catch you when your faith wavers."

Loebenstein's halau makes a traditional pilgrimage to the volcano the day they arrive in Hilo. "We take a ho'okupu, a gift for Laka, and a chant. This is NOT worship; it's just showing respects," she said.

Lopes' troupe always does a pule before a performance, "to our main source, Akua, the Lord."

And almost the last act at most halau is the making of lei. "We go together to Kona side, Big Island, to pick the lehua, and then make lei on the Sunday afternoon, before," said Natalie A'i of Halau Hula Olana. "It's important that we make it ourselves, start to finish."

Then they're ready to go, as ready as they'll ever be.

"Preparation?" said Lum Ho. "We've already practiced all year. When the time comes, if everything looks good and feels right, then it's time. We go!"

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