Backstory: Where hula heroines preempt prime time

The 'merrie monarchy' of dance gurus is revered by Hawaiians of every color, age, and gender.

This is the big one - the Olympics, World Series, and Super Bowl wrapped in one. Every hotel and B&B within miles is booked for the week. The state's ABC affiliate preempts network programming for Hawaii's No. 1 local telecast of the year. The coverage includes instant replays and expert commentary. The fortunate, about 5,000 of them, sit in the live audience. Some come from Europe and the Far East. The focus of the frenzy?

Hula. Real hula. There are no ukeleles, grass skirts, coconut shell bras, lascivious smiles, or flirtatious glances.

For a week each April an entire state stands on tiptoe to watch the annual Merrie Monarch Festival. Here, Hawaii's very best halau - hula schools - vie for nothing more than the glory of winning the dance's most important competition.

Young women in knee-length skirts and long-sleeved blouses sway in unison with smooth, piscine grace, their long slender fingers flickering just over their heads. Their hand motions tell timeless stories. Their feet are planted, their knees bent, to keep their bodies low to the ground to draw energy from the earth. Behind the dancers, a kneeling woman plays a drum and, in a voice softer than cobwebs, sings ancient Hawaiian words describing all the winds of Hawaii looping back a thousand years through the generations.

***

Just a few weeks ago, on the grassy grounds of the Hulihee Palace in downtown Kona, the next generation of Merrie Monarch competitors - a group of 5- to 8-year-old girls - gathered on a balmy winter afternoon. What might be an after-school soccer ritual for mainland girls is here a ritual of hula. Parents and grandparents have brought the kids with long hula skirts over their school clothes and have set up aluminum lawn chairs to watch.

At the center of it all is Etua Lopez, a large Hawaiian man sitting cross-legged, chanting, and smacking a gourd drum with his palm. A kuma hula - one of the most revered figures in the islands - he's one of a handful of men and women who've mastered an understanding of hula and been entrusted to teach and perpetuate it. Kuma hula is an inexact term, but its closest connotation is guru.

Relentlessly, Mr. Lopez drums his cadence and exhorts his students: Thump, thump, thump. "Listen to the drum! Circle big in the back and small in the front." Thump, thump thump. "Are you bending low enough? Chin up! Why are you bouncing, Ariana? Are we practicing at home? Listen to the drum, Kamalani." Thump thump thump."

The little girls - whose appearance ranges from coffee-brown skin and crow-black hair to blond hair and milk-pale skin - didn't just sign up for a class with Lopez. He's rigorously selective. There's great prestige in dancing for a kuma hula, and much is expected of a student.

"I expect commitment," he says. There are two one-hour practices each week, and students are expected to practice an hour a day at home. "This group is my foundation - 15 years from now, they will be my Merrie Monarch line," says the kuma hula, whose students consistently place in the top 10 at the Merrie Monarch.

Lopez's students look upon him as a sort of guru. One, 15-year-old Kawena Kupule, was hand-picked by Lopez from a Hawaiian pre-school at the age of 3 to join his halau. She describes a nostalgic mystique cast by the man she trained under for 5 years before her family moved to Colorado. The "beautiful dance" this big man can perform is one of her most powerful memories of childhood. "I dream a lot of going home," she says. Returning to the halau is a big part of that dream.

His young students also worship his older Merrie Monarch charges as heroines.

"Hula is like baseball on the mainland," says Lei Lightner, the cultural director of the Kona Village Resort. "We have Little Leaguers in the small towns. We have rookies and semi-pros, and then the major leagues, where the players go to the Merrie Monarch."

***

Hula is one of the most performed, most recognizable and most misunderstood dance in the world. It's considered the backbone of Hawaiian culture. When Christian missionaries arrived here in the early 19th century, they were scandalized by the hula and banned it. Like many outsiders even today, the missionaries paid most attention to the dancers, particularly their hips; but it is the chant, the words, that are all-important. The Hawaiians had no written language and the hula was their archive of history, tradition, and mythology. The hula went underground until King David Kalakaua, the "Merrie Monarch" took over as Hawaii's last king in 1874 and proclaimed, "I am king! We shall dance!"

But after the Merrie Monarch's death, the hula was largely performed in families and small private groups. By the time Hawaii became a US state in 1959, the indigenous culture had become a shallow tourist promotion tool - and it was forbidden to teach the language in schools.

Then the civil rights movement took the form of an aggressive reaffirmation of the values of old Hawaii. Renewed interest brought the realization that the dance can't exist without the language. The hula is about history, genealogy, social issues, and spirituality. So today hula is everywhere.

"When I began teaching 30 years ago," says Lopez, "hula was far less popular than it is now. There's been a resurrection, and now hula is a dominant theme of our everyday culture."

Steven Kop, president of Aloha Hula Supply in Honolulu, says sales of costumes, instruments, and instructional materials has risen sharply over the past five years.

The revival is evident in the halau boom - every town has at least one, and enrollment has rocketed. They're sponsored by businesses, schools, and churches. Students range from 3-year-olds to octogenarians. They perform in hospitals, nursing homes, country fairs, parades, and shopping malls. And, of course, in major competitions like the Merrie Monarch. They're seen practicing in early evenings on the lawns of public spaces across the islands. Virtually any social event - birthdays, routine family gatherings, graduations, and retirement parties - is an occasion for hula.

***

In the tiny town of Kapa'au on the Big Island of Hawaii, the intermediate class of the Hula Halau Kalaniumi Aliloa meets weekly in a local gym. Between draped punching bags and over the low zzzzzz of flickering fluorescent lights, teacher Kaui Nakamura chants about gods and goddesses. Three women and 13 girls in the intermediate class sway in the standard position: feet flat, knees bent, weight on one foot, leaving the other to initiate the next action. ("It's the transfer of the weight from foot to foot that gives the swaying motion," Ms. Nakamura explains.)

Among the student dancers is Vicky Kometani, who came to the islands from Colorado in 1973, and her 15-year-old daughter. "Through hula, I learn history [and] language, and I gain a deeper understanding that helps me feel more a part of this place I call home," she says during a break.

It's very unlikely that any of these dancers will participate in the Merrie Monarch, says Nakamura, but "hula is for everyone ... not just Hawaiians."

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