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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 11:35 a.m., Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Scenes from the Merrie Monarch Festival: final rehearsals

 •  Special Section: 43rd Merrie Monarch Festival

By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor

Hilo Hanakahi*, Hawai'i — For months now, the halau participating in the Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition have been practicing their dances on imaginary stages, marked out in masking tape or yarn or chalk on the floors of rehearsal halls or even outdoors on the grass.

As few have spaces as large as the festival's capacious stage, they've had to compress their choreography or perform the dances in chopped-up bits.

But now, the real thing — the scuffed plywood stage laid out on the floor of the Edith Kanaka'ole Tennis Stadium.

A scene last Saturday is typical. Miss Aloha Hula candidate Kapalai'ula de Silva, youngest daughter of kumu hula Mapuana de Silva of Halau Mohala 'Ilima, paces the stage in pensive silence while her mother, her father and several of her hula sisters look on. Readying to perform her kahiko (traditional) dance, with its demanding attendant chant, she walks through the dance, trades quiet words and giggles with her mother, laughingly orders her sister to quit taking pictures. She prowls the stage, head-down, like a runner examining the track before a race. She cries out in pain as her mother massages the muscles of her chest.

Finally, she is ready.

Her chant ripples through the empty hall. Her dance is both graceful and powerful, moving between fast and slow, its cadence set by the kala'au sticks she taps together. There is a lot of deep work, kneeling and squatting. By the end, she is sweating despite a chill breeze. But she is smiling, as is her kumu mother.

Scenes like this will be repeated hour after hour until the final rehearsal slot, 2 p.m. Saturday, when Snowbird Bento's Ka Pa Hula O Ka Lei Lehua will get the last chance to rehearse before the final competition.

Halau arrive as early as possible in Hilo to take advantage of the coveted one- and two-hour rehearsal times assigned to the schools between Easter weekend and the opening of the three-day competition on Thursday. Rehearsals begin as early as 7 a.m. and some nights continue as late as 11 p.m.

Here, as in everything to do with Hawaiian culture, protocol applies. Halau are not permitted to enter the stadium while another group is on the stage. Rehearsals begin with rituals particular to each school: chanting or singing. The usually end with a forceful but quiet talk from the kumu hula, followed by a circle of prayer. Tears often flow.

Rehearsal time is particularly sacred for those halau that enter all three divisions: Miss Aloha Hula, female group and male group. These can afford no down time because they are cramming three rehearsals into one — as the men file off, sweating from their workout, the women are climbing the ramp to the stage.

These practice days also offer KITV director John Wray the opportunity to time the performances with a stopwatch and make quick sketches that help him determine the best camera angles for each performance.

And they may be the only opportunity the groups get to perform the dance with the actual musicians who will be playing for them; most have rehearsed with recordings or their own halau musicians.


One musician who'll be keeping extremely busy during this Merrie Monarch is Hoku Award-winning singer/songwriter Kaumakaiwa "Lopaka" Kanaka'ole of Hilo, the great-grandson of the kumu hula for whom this stadium is named. Four of his compositions are being used by three different halau.

"I'm so honored, and it's so nice to be singing my own stuff," said Kanaka'ole.

Saturday morning, he rehearsed with Halau O Lilinoe of Carson, Calif., whose women are dancing to two songs, one from each of his recorded collections, "Ha'i Kupuna" and "Welo." Be ready for the auana number: It's about as close to rock 'n roll as you're going to see on a Merrie Monarch stage, but in a very Hawaiian way.

Another song been selected by Maui's Halau Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka.

Kanaka'ole is especially happy that his Auntie Ala — Leina'ala Kalama Heine — has chosen two of his early songs for her Na Pualei 'O Likolehua to perform. His mom, Kekuhi Kanahele-Frias, is joining him in singing these: "We coaxed her out of retirement," he said.

As soon as Merrie Monarch is over, Halau O Kekuhi, his family's hula troupe, heads to Japan to mount a production of their hula opera "Holo Mai Pele." Then he'll return to Mountain Apple's recording studios on O'ahu to record a self-titled collection. "Ho! Busy," he said.


Mary Ann Lim, matriach of the musical Lim Family of Kohala, has seen so many of her children and grandchildren perform in hula competition that you'd think she'd grow a little blase about it. But here she is on Saturday, watching her granddaughter Alohanamakanamaikalanimai Davis-Lim rehearse for her Miss Aloha Hula performance, and Tutu-wahine is observing as intently as if she hadn't seen the dance 100 times by now.

She explained that all the songs her daughters' Na Lei O Kaholoku will be performing this year are related to Poli'ahu, the snow goddess. Davis-Lim's auana number requires her to express both the great happiness of love and its loss, for the chosen one of the snow goddess, a Kaua'i chief, finds he cannot endure the great cold of her mountain home, and the two part. "See, see — now is the sad part. Poliahu had a hard time," Mary Ann Lim says. And when it's over, she murmurs, "Awesome! Maka'i!"

Davis-Lim has an enviable training team as she prepares for the competition. Her aunties Nani Lim Yap and Leialoha Lim Amina, kumu hula of Merrie Monarch's first place winner last year, are her teachers. Her auntie Lorna Lim is an award-winning hula competitor, too, and dances in the front line of Kaholoku — though she's sitting out the actual dancing this year as she's expecting. Another Lim grandson, Covington, a four-time Master Keiki Hula, is helping perfect the dance, too.

Na Lei O Kaholoku made the long drive over from Kahala to fit in this rehearsal. As soon as it was over, the Lim family band members would hop a plane to Maui to perform at Celebration of the Arts at the Ritz Carlton Kapalua.


It's not a Hawaiian word, but it's what rehearsal is all about. Like the corps de ballet in the classic dance, hula halau in group performance are judged on their ability to form and keep straight rows and to maintain an equal distance between the dancers, even as the choreography moves them about the stage. Maintaining the line is as important as knowing the steps and moving in unison.

"Line! Line! Line!," calls an alaka'i of Halau O Lilinoe, shooting a sideways glance at her hula sisters. Leialoha Lim Amina, co-kumu with her sister, Nani Lim Yap of last year's first place-winning Na Lei O Kaholoku, uses a gentle joke to let her dancers know that one side of the line is spreading itself a bit thin: "You're so strong on that side; you're just pulling everyone with you!" she says. But the point is made.

Just which line a dancer is assigned to, and where in the line they dance, is another topic of discussion — though not one much talked about in public. Kumu hula showcase the strongest dancers in the front line; to be assigned there is an honor, a vote of confidence in the student. Generally, the alaka'i anchor the line, dancing at the center or at one end.

But Kaholoku alaka'i Lorna Lim exhorts the troupe not to think that a farther-back position means a dancer can just follow along. "The second line has to think it's the front line. What if you get moved to the front tomorrow? You can't be waiting for them to show you what to do." Furthermore, judges are sure to watch for second-line flubs. Also, today's more complex choreography often has the rear lines dancing to the front, or the two lines dancing with different steps, putting both in the spotlight.

* Hilo is often referred to as Hilo Hanakahi, in honor of a favorite chief and "Mahalo E Hilo Hanakahi" is a favorite song praising the warmth of the people here. Actually, Hilo Hanakahi is one of three districts of Hilo, referring to the area toward Keaukaha and Hamakua.