Dancing as one


POSTED: Tuesday, April 14, 2009

In a hula festival already rich in tradition, Auntie Ellen Castillo continues to be an integral part of the history of the Merrie Monarch Festival.




46th annual Merrie Monarch Festival

        Place: Edith Kanakaole Stadium, Hilo

        Competitions: 6:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday


More coverage

        » Miss Aloha Hula: The list of participants. Pg. 34

        » The halau: The list of competitors. Pg. 34

        » On television: High-definition coverage a first for KITV. Pg. 34



        Thursday: Miss Aloha Hula competition

        Friday: Hula kahiko (ancient) competition

        Saturday: Hula 'auana (contemporary) competition and overall awards ceremony

Castillo is part of a prominent lineage of kumu that dates back to Auntie Edith Kanaka'ole — whose memory is honored by the Hilo stadium named after her where the festival is held — who, in turn, taught Castillo's own kumu Auntie Bella Richards.

Castillo is now in her 51st year as kumu to the wahine of Pukaikapuaokalani Hula Halau. Castillo's halau is named for her tutu, whose Hawaiian name translates to “;seashell flower of heaven.”;

A participant in the Merrie Monarch Festival dating back to 1972, the competition's second year, Castillo will bring her largest group of young women, at 29, to the Big Island this year, with about half of them new to the prestigious hula event.

On Wednesday night the halau was rehearsing at Waimanalo District Park. Despite the cool weather, the fans have been turned on in the building next to the park's gymnasium that has been the halau's rehearsal space over the last several months. The wahine keep their poise, in spite of the exertion, as they perform run-throughs of the hula 'auana and hula kahiko (contemporary and ancient hula, respectively) they'll be performing in Hilo.

There are five generations of dancers in Castillo's halau, including Debbie Uilani Ortino, a former student who resides in San Francisco and has been back home since January to rejoin her hula sisters — a group that includes four of her cousins — during the festival.

“;I'm glad I'm sharing this with my cousins,”; she said. “;We never danced together until now.”;

Ortino danced for Castillo for 10 years, starting at 3 years old, until she turned 13 and started dancing professionally, first at the Ala Moana Hotel's Hawaiian Hut South Seas show, then at Tokyo Disneyland.

“;I'm back to where I learned everything, where I started in hula, and it's the first time I'm doing Merrie Monarch. I felt it was finally time for me to do it. The opportunity to dance in Merrie Monarch was something I needed to do to complete my life in hula.

“;This has been totally different from my previous professional work,”; Ortino said. “;It's hard, working to try to dance as one with my hula sisters. All I pretty much had to be concerned about before when I danced solo was looking good.”;



THROUGHOUT THE rehearsal, Castillo is obviously looking for more than just a technically solid performance. She has maintained a standard of grace and expressiveness that has made her and her halau a mainstay at the Merrie Monarch Festival year in and year out.

As the halau rehearses their hula 'auana, “;La'ie ka Wai,”; the kumu gently chides her dancers to “;use your whole body, not just arms and a smile. ... A pretty smile is not enough. You've got to bring out the feeling!”;

That's what Castillo wants from her dancers. “;I'm hoping that I can convey the same thoughts I learned from Auntie Bella and pass them over to my girls. They need to express themselves completely so the audience can feel the emotions come across in the hula. It's hard sometimes but I keep pushing.”;

“;When you dance for Auntie Ellen in Merrie Monarch,”; alaka'i (halau leader) Darcey Moniz said, “;it's not to win, but for people to feel the words. Dancing kahiko and 'auana, it's about telling the story.”;

“;I'm still motivated about going to Merrie Monarch,”; Castillo said. “;It still feels important to us, and I'm excited that we can continue to go on and try our best.”;