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Before The Glory
Gearing up for the Merrie Monarch Festival
by Lance Tominaga     

"I don’t choose the best dancers," he says. “Of course, you need to have some kind of technical ability to go, but I choose the dancer that has the right attitude, the desire—the dancer that has the ability to feel what it is he or she is dancing.” -kumu hula William Kahakuleilehua “Sonny” Ching

For most of us, the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo is a fantastic celebration of the Hawaiian culture, overflowing with pageantry and color, and spotlighting perhaps the most beautiful and personal form of Hawaiian expression, the hula. Whether we're one of the fortunate few who get to attend the event in person, or are among the thousands of viewers watching the festival on television, what we see-the intricate motions, the vibrant costumes, the radiant smiles-is what we remember.

Unfortunately, most of us never see the hundreds of hours of work that goes into putting the festival together. We can never fully appreciate the planning and preparation that occurs to make the festival one of the most prestigious events-the "Super Bowl of hula," as some call it-in all of Hawai'i.

That is, until now. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation behind the Merrie Monarch Festival, from the perspectives of both participants and organizers.

At Halau Na Mamo O Pu'uanahulu's halau/studio in Honolulu, a simple sign is taped along one wall. It reads "Makaukau 'Oe? Are You Ready?" Three words are written just below the question: Physically. Mentally. Spiritually.

It is the first Thursday in January, two days before Halau Na Mamo O Pu'uanahulu will hold its first practice for this year's Merrie Monarch Festival, and kumu hula William Kahakuleilehua "Sonny" Ching has already dodged some friendly fire.

"Auntie Dottie called me yesterday and asked me if I was ready," he says, speaking of Dottie Thompson, the event's chairperson. "I was late in selecting the songs we'll use in this year's competition. But it's all in now!"

Ching smiles. It's all starting again, he knows. The weekly 90-minute practices will soon enough occur twice a week then three times a week before turning into marathon daily practices. "It's kind of difficult," he admits, "because we have to go to work or go to school or have family to tend to. That's one of the requirements for my Merrie Monarch dancers: they need to be able to handle all of this! They need to focus their energies, organize themselves and their time so that they can keep up with their work, school and families as well as participate in all the Merrie Monarch activities." In addition to the Merrie Monarch rehearsals, Ching requires his dancers to attend their regular weekly class.

These are the sacrifices champions must make. Last year, Halau Na Mamo O Pu'uanahulu scored a rare achievement in Merrie Monarch lore, winning both the women's and men's overall competitions. It was only the second such occurrence in the event's history.
"I was very happy," Ching recalls, "but I was more happy for my students than myself. I don't think of it as being 'I won Merrie Monarch.' My students won it. It was really icing on the cake, because they already felt good about their performance. We didn't need to win. And I think that because our quest never lies in winning, it made it kind of sweeter."

Ask the veteran kumu hula-he started his halau in 1986-about the importance of winning hula competitions, and he'll shake his head. "We enjoy going to competitions because it helps to maintain the level of excellence that I want," he explains. "And it gives us a short-term goal; it's always nice to feel good about what we've accomplished. But all of those things are just extras. The whole purpose of hula is to bring dignity to the Hawaiian culture. My dancers need to dance for the right reasons: to bring dignity to the culture, to the people, to themselves and to Halau Na Mamo O Pu'uanahulu.

"Winning will happen if it happens."

Selecting the dancers to participate in the festival, for Ching, is almost a year-long process. Of the nearly 400 students in Halau Na Mamo O Pu'uanahulu, 34 women and 16 men will take the stage at this year's competition. "I don't choose the best dancers," he says. "Of course, you need to have some kind of technical ability to go, but I choose the dancer that has the right attitude, the desire-the dancer that has the ability to feel what it is he or she is dancing."

In order to help his dancers "feel" the dance, Ching will take his group to the location the mele or chant speaks about. Last year, for example, he took his group to Kaho'olawe, a moving pilgrimage that helped his Merrie Monarch dancers grasp the meaning of Ching's mele, which was inspired by a previous Kaho'olawe sojourn he took the previous year. “I want them to capture the spirit or the essence of the place,” he says. “This helps them to gain a mastery over the dance, which helps them to gain mastery over the subject. It increases their mana, their personal power.”

“I firmly believe that a dancer needs to understand all aspects of the dance. Otherwise, the dance doesn’t live. It becomes robotic. All they’d be doing is motions, and anyone can do that. Our halau tries to capture the life and essence of each dance we do. So when we dance, we dance with spirit!”

Ching’s Merrie Monarch dancers make one final sacrifice during the final two weeks before the event. They abstain from alcohol, certain types of seafood, raw sugar and even sex. These kapu were practiced by Hawaiians in ancient times, says Ching, and therefore it is a tradition he asks of his group. “Kukulukumuhana,” he says. “The pulling of strengths and energies together to achieve a goal. This allows us to strengthen ourselves, to purify ourselves, so that we’ll be ready when we take the stage.”

Relatively speaking, the halau has it easy. “Originally, those kapu were imposed on anyone learning hula for the entire time that they trained,” explains Ching. “But that is something that is too difficult to ask of someone today, I guess! So we’ve adapted it to practice it on a much smaller and easier scale. The difficulty of each kapu varies from student to student. Obviously, someone who likes to go out on weekends and drink will have a hard time with that kapu. And for some people who are married, well, sometimes it’s hard for the spouse to understand!”

Does Ching get stressed during the preparation for the festival? “For me, any competition or performance is very stressful,” he admits. “And that’s because I set a high standard. And I don’t do it for myself. I do it for my culture, because my culture deserves a high standard. I never feel like we’re good enough. I never feel like we’re ready. Never.”

That means, in all likelihood, that the Merrie Monarch dancers of Halau Na Mamo O Pu‘uanahulu are very ready, indeed.

“That’s a great idea! I think the public would love to know these things!” That was the response from Dottie Thompson, the longtime chairperson of the Merrie Monarch Festival, after being approached for this article.

“Auntie Dottie,” as everyone calls her, can never chat for very long, though. She is, appropriately enough, swamped with festival-related duties. “Oh, yes,” she says. “For instance, right now we have requests for tickets coming out of our ears! We’re hoping and praying that we’re going to be able to accommodate quite a few, but we know it’ll be impossible to accommodate everybody!”

Thompson, 78, is a popular lady these days, and it’s not just because she’s the person with the festival tickets. “She is the glue that holds everything together,” says Ching appreciatively. She is truly pa‘ahana. Industrious. She works so hard, and she does it with style, grace and always with a smile. She has the ability to be firm yet fair. She has such a gentle spirit. And I think that’s why she’s so well loved by everyone.”

On this overcast January day, however, Thompson finds herself deluged with ticket requests. “We have limited seating,” she bemoans. “There are only 5,040 (tickets), and the halau take half. People come from Germany, Italy and from other parts of the world. I mean, if Japan could buy all the tickets, they would!”

Distributing the festival tickets is just one facet of Thompson’s day-to-day work. There are also a wide variety of festival events to schedule, including a ho‘olaule‘a, parade, arts and crafts shows, and a full slate of entertainment. She also deals with media from around the world, and works with the participating halaus to schedule practices and ensures they meet the judges’ criteria in terms of chants, mele and costumes.

“This is a cultural event,” says Thompson, “and each halau has to do a lot of research. They have to submit to us a fact sheet which states why they’re using certain kinds of clothes or leis in regards to the chant or mele that they’re doing. It’s not just picking a song and entering.”

Thompson has presided over the festival since late 1968, when the then-six-year-old event was in danger of being discontinued by the Hawai‘i Chamber of Commerce. In those early years, the festival included musical concerts, Hawaiian games and even a mustache-sideburns contest (a la King David Kalakaua). Thompson, who was then an employee for Hawai‘i County, took on the task of keeping the event alive. “I didn’t volunteer to be the chairman, but nobody else would handle it,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to see another Hawaiian festival die.” This year marks her thirtieth event at the Merrie Monarch helm. With that much experience gained, has organizing the event gotten any easier? Thompson pauses for a moment, her eyes widening. “Heck, NO!” she says, laughing. “It’s still just as much work today to get everybody to turn things in on time!”

Although the festival lasts only a week, it requires year-round attention from Thompson, who, like everyone else involved in putting the festival together, receives no salary for her labor. Just a week or so after the event is over, she says, she writes to each participating halau and inquires whether they intend to return the next year.

“We drop the bottom three halau (the ones with the lowest overall scores),”Thompson explains, “so we can give some new ones the opportunity to come in. And the ones we drop go on our waiting list.” This year’s festival will have 29 total competing groups, 16 wahine, 11 kane and 2 combined.

Besides the competitions, hula exhibitions are featured throughout the week at the Hawai‘i Naniloa Hotel and the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel. These performances spotlight some of the best and most spirited halau from around the world. Last year’s festival, for example, included hula presentations from halau representing Guam and Japan. “Mexico wants to come, so they’re coming in 2000. And the Maoris are returning in 2000 as well,” Thompson says. “We have so many (halau) that call and say they want to come and perform, but once I make the schedule of events, I can’t change it!”

The renaissance of the Hawaiian culture, no doubt, can partly be attributed to the Merrie Monarch Festival. “I could see the potential in the Hawaiians being self-sufficient in their arts and crafts,” Thompson says. “I think that’s been proven. And I think the festival played a big part in it.”

After all these years of organizing the most prestigious hula event in the world, Thompson shows no signs of burnout, even during the week of the festival when she might work around the clock. “I don’t even think that,” she insists. “If you start thinking like that, I think you do get tired! It does become stressful at times, but I go to church, pray and come back refreshed!”

Any other secrets to success? Thompson laughs and reveals her simple rule: “When we get tired, we go home!” The 37th annual Merrie Monarch Festival will be held April 23-29, 2000 in downtown Hilo on the island of Hawai‘i. Highlights of the festival will be televised on KITV-4. For more information and a complete schedule of events, call 935-9168.


"Readers may submit editorial comments to any of our stories by sending an email to les@lbdcoffee.com. We would be happy to attach your comments and feedback to anything we publish online. Thank you for your interest."

Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.

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