Before The Glory
Gearing up for the Merrie
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
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
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
"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 doesnt
live. It becomes robotic. All theyd 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!
Chings 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 well 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 weve 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 its
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 thats
because I set a high standard. And I dont do it
for myself. I do it for my culture, because my culture
deserves a high standard. I never feel like were
good enough. I never feel like were ready. Never.
That means, in all likelihood, that the Merrie Monarch
dancers of Halau Na Mamo O Puuanahulu are very
Thats 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! Were
hoping and praying that were going to be able
to accommodate quite a few, but we know itll be
impossible to accommodate everybody!
Thompson, 78, is a popular lady these days, and its
not just because shes the person with the festival
tickets. She is the glue that holds everything
together, says Ching appreciatively. She is truly
paahana. 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 thats why shes
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
Distributing the festival tickets is just one facet
of Thompsons day-to-day work. There are also a
wide variety of festival events to schedule, including
a hoolaulea, 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 theyre
using certain kinds of clothes or leis in regards to
the chant or mele that theyre doing. Its
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 Hawaii 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 Hawaii County, took on the
task of keeping the event alive. I didnt
volunteer to be the chairman, but nobody else would
handle it, she recalls. I didnt 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.
Its 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
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 years 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 Hawaii Naniloa Hotel
and the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel. These performances spotlight
some of the best and most spirited halau from around
the world. Last years festival, for example, included
hula presentations from halau representing Guam and
Japan. Mexico wants to come, so theyre 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 cant 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 thats 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 dont 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
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
Hawaii. Highlights of the festival will be televised
on KITV-4. For more information and a complete schedule
of events, call 935-9168.
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