HANAPEPE — The cold wind blowing down the Kalaheo plateau could not extinguish the fire burning in the hearts of the dancers from hula halau Ka Lei Mokihana O Leina‘ala Monday at a semi-sheltered area at Salt Pond.
“They’re doing their final ho‘okupu and asking blessings before getting on the plane for the Merrie Monarch,” said Tammy Pu‘u, one of the Merrie Monarch travelers. “I danced with Leina‘ala last year, our first year at the Merrie Monarch, but this year, my daughter will be dancing and I will be spectating.”
The Merrie Monarch Festival began Sunday and will run through Saturday in Hilo on the Big Island. Started in 1963, the festival served as a way for the Big Island to attract tourists to the island.
The purpose of the Merrie Monarch Festival is the perpetuation, preservation and promotion of the art of hula and Hawaiian culture through education. It is now considered the world’s premier forum for people of all ages to display their skills and knowledge of the art of ancient and modern hula.
In 1964, a King Kalakaua beard look-a-like contest was added along with a barbershop quartet contest, a relay race, a re-creation of King Kalakaua’s coronation and a holoku ball.
But by 1968, the festival fell into hard times and would have been suspended. It was then that Dottie Thompson took over as executive director of the festival, and in 1971, a hula competition was added, the first year attracting nine wahine (women) halau with Aloha Dalire winning the first Miss Hula title.
In 1976, the festival was opened to kane (men) and from there, the festival took off, attracting a number of enthusiastic fans internationally.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Merrie Monarch Festival and Kaua‘i received invitations for two halau to participate, one being Ka Lei Mokihana O Leina‘ala and the other being Healani’s Hula Halau & Music Academy under the direction of kumu hula Beverly Apana Muraoka.
“Aunty Bev,” as the kumu is affectionately called, was part of the Apana Sisters singing group, which graced many local families and visitors with their Hawaiian music. The group is remembered for their special renditions and “chalang-alang” twist, states a mayoral proclamation announcing Dec. 14, 2012, as “Aunty Bev’s Day on Kaua‘i.”
Muraoka has been blessed with perpetuating the aloha spirit through her Hawaiian music and dedication as a kumu hula of Healani’s Hula Halau & Music Academy.
This will be the halau’s final trip to the Merrie Monarch Festival with Muraoka as its kumu hula, the legacy of the halau being carried on by Aunty Bev’s daughter, Kerianne, who will determine the future of the halau.
On the final night of practice before the group leaves for the Big Island, kumu hula Leina‘ala Pavao Jardin was joined by Rev. Jade Wai‘ale‘ale Battad as the pair watched and listened 35 dancers as they did an oli, once to the sun, once to the mountains and once to the ocean.
This preceded the march into the ocean where the ceremony to cleanse the garments the girls used to practice took place as the sun dipped below the silhouette of Ni‘ihau. Visitors stopped for photos and listening in awe at the unique harmonious voices of the dancers.
“We’ll have 35 dancers for the kahiko number with two ho‘opa‘a, or chanters, and kumu,” Pu‘u said. “There will be 30 dancers for the ‘auana number.”
Pavao Jardin said this year the halau will not field a Miss Aloha Hula contestant. Individual contestants for Miss Aloha Hula perform hula kahiko, hula ‘auana and oli.
The group hula kahiko takes place Friday and the hula ‘auana takes place Saturday, both at the Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium in Hilo at 5:45 p.m. KFVE will be broadcasting the festivities live Thursday through Saturday. KFVE.com will also provide live streaming
video of the competition each night. Tickets for this year’s Miss Aloha Hula, group kahiko and group ‘auana competition are sold out.
“I have been waiting for 28 years to dance at the Merrie Monarch,” said Sherri Ephan, a Ka Lei Mokihana dancer. “The last time I went to the Merrie Monarch, I was a teenager with Aunty Kapu Kinimaka-Alquiza’s Na Hula O Kaohikukapulani, sitting in the stands thinking, ‘I can’t wait to be on that stage.’”
Ephan said she got caught up with sports and never made it back as a dancer.
“Now that my kids are pretty much grown, I made a commitment to just do it,” she said. “My body is definitely not the same as it was when I was 13 years old. Aches and pains haunt me every single day. However, as each day goes by, I am more blessed and thankful just for the opportunity to dance at the Merrie Monarch.”
Visit www.merriemonarch.com for more information.
• Dennis Fujimoto, photographer and staff writer, can be reached at 245-0453 or dfujimoto@ thegardenisland.com.