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Merrie Monarch festival boosts Big Isle economy


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POSTED: Sunday, April 12, 2009

Despite global economic woes, the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo will go on this year as strong as ever, according to organizers.

The main events at the state's biggest hula festival sold out months ago, and hundreds of performers are going ahead with travel plans to join the competition on the Big Island this week.

“;They're coming,”; Luana Kawelu, festival president, said of both dancers and spectators.

The program opens Wednesday at the Edith Kanakaole Tennis Stadium in Hilo, with the Miss Aloha Hula contest on Thursday night, the group kahiko (ancient hula) competition on Friday night and the 'auana (modern hula) on Saturday night.

Twenty-seven performances by 23 halau are scheduled Friday and Saturday nights — only two fewer than last year and the same number as 2007, Kawelu said.

The only difference Kawelu is seeing this year is that some halau will be arriving in Hilo on Thursday, a day later than usual, and are bringing fewer dancers, Kawelu said. But besides halau from Maui, Oahu and Kauai, as well as the host Big Island, two groups from California and one from Las Vegas are set to compete.

“;We shopped around for airline tickets,”; the major expense, said Sheldeen Haleamau, kumu of Halau Hula o Kaleimomi of Las Vegas. “;Our leis were donated and part of our housing was donated, and that made it easier. We kept the costumes simple, and my mom and I did the sewing.”;

The halau held a “;very successful”; fundraising luau in Las Vegas in February which drew 300 people, she said. “;We also had some generous donations.”;

Her group includes only seven dancers, but they arrive on Monday for a rehearsal at the stadium immediately after arrival, and the longer stay adds to the expense, said Haleamau, a former Miss Aloha Hula who has lived in Las Vegas for nearly 10 years and opened her halau in 2002.

Her travel group includes musicians for the 'auana performance, led by entertainer husband Gary Haleamau.

“;The economy is a problem for everyone, but I try to work with my dancers,”; said Aloha Dalire, kumu of Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa o Laka in Kaneohe. “;I emphasized to the girls that there is nothing wrong if they can't go, but they wanted to.”;

This will be Dalire's 37th appearance at the festival. She said her mother and halau founder, the late Mary McCabe Wong, “;would be upset with me if I didn't go.”;

“;We have a strong desire and love for Merrie Monarch and will do whatever we can to be there,”; she said.

Dalire said she does not usually do fundraising, but she did this year, including a night of music and hula at a nightclub. She also is having to “;cut corners.”; Only 16 dancers are making the trip this year, compared with 21 last year, but the schedule remains the same with a Wednesday night arrival.

The economy was “;a concern but not an issue,”; said kumu Mapuana de Silva, of Halau Mohala Ilima in Lanikai. Her only fundraiser was a recent concert at Hawaii Theatre in Honolulu. “;It sold out, and that was not the case with some recent productions,”; she said.

But most dancers struggle every year to get funds for the trip to Hilo, she said.

De Silva, who is making her 31st appearance at Merrie Monarch, is taking 21 dancers, about the usual number. “;The number has nothing to do with the economy,”; she said. “;It has to do with people who are ready. I like to hope that the culture is so important that it can't be left behind when things go bad.”;

The recession is mostly affecting spectators and families, she said.

But Kawelu said the performances sold out the first day tickets were available in late December. “;We had to send back more than 1,000 requests,”; she said.

The requests came from Norway, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and all over the mainland, she said.

“;We've got hula lovers coming from all over the world. I'm surprised they heard about this festival so far away.”; Despite the economy, “;people are still interested in hula, and that's really great,”; Haleamau said.