Hawaii’s hula community stunned by deaths of two of its pillars
by Suzanne Roig
Advertiser Staff Writer
Just weeks before hula's premier event, the hula world is mourning the loss of two of its best-known members.
The deaths of kumu hula Rae Fonseca and "Auntie Dottie" Thompson will no doubt be felt at this year's Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, which runs April 4 to 10 in Hilo.
Fonseca, 56, whose Hula Halau 'O Kahikilaulani performed around the world and earned numerous honors at the Merrie Monarch, died suddenly Saturday after performing at the Lei 'O Lanikuhonua Hula Festival at Ko Olina.
Just a day earlier, Thompson, 88, one of the founders of the Merrie Monarch, died in Hilo.
Manu Boyd, kumu hula for Halau o ke 'A'ali'i Ku Makani, said Thompson's and Fonseca's legacies will live on in the dance they loved.
"We'll all get through the pain and the shock eventually," Boyd added.
Fonseca was standing in the wings after his performance Saturday when he collapsed, bystanders said.
Paramedics took Fonseca in critical condition to a hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.
As the news hummed along the coconut wireless, other kumu reflected on Fonseca's impact on hula.
Last year, Fonseca's Hilo halau finished fourth in the men's kahiko (ancient) division, second in wahine kahiko, and third in wahine overall. In past festivals, Fonseca's halau has taken top honors.
"He will be missed by many people," said Noenoe Zuttermeister Lewis, a kumu and University of Hawai'i teacher. "Hilo is a close community. He left his mark in hula."
Fonseca died doing what he loved, and there's a lot to be said for that, she said.
"Not many can say that they were doing what made them happiest when they left this world," she said.
Lewis said Fonseca was immensely talented. "He had a talent of using his hands and making the most beautiful things, lei and ti-leaf skirts," she said.
A student of the late George Na'ope, Fonseca, of Hilo, was just coming into his own as a kumu hula, she said. Fonseca was considered the keeper of Na'ope's style of hula. Na'ope died last year.
Several people yesterday said Fonseca's 2006 conviction for second-degree negligent homicide reflected a serious misstep, one that he paid for with a six-month jail sentence and five years of probation.
He tested positive for cocaine after a 2003 crash on a private road that killed Michael R. Spens, 58.
"Rae made a mistake, and he made it right," Zuttermeister Lewis said. "I don't look back and hold it against him."
Fonseca was a dedicated kumu hula, said Paulie Jennings, executive director of the World Invitational Hula Festival, held annually in November.
"He left his mark, and it will be indelible."