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There's nothing like the smells, sights and sounds of being there

By Wanda Adams

LAST UPDATED: 11:35 a.m. HST, Feb 12, 2014

As a girl, I briefly "took" hula from the late Auntie Emma Farden Sharpe, one of Maui's most famous teachers. A quarter-century later, I "took" for two years from Auntie Lorraine Daniel, daughter of Magic Hula Studio founder Rose K. Joshua, and later I "took" from their student, Wade Kilohana Shirkey.

But it wasn't until some years later that hula "took" me — to Hilo, to cover the Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition as a newspaper reporter.


See our special Merrie Monarch section at

>> Festival updates by staff writer Nina Wu
>> Photo galleries by staff photographer Dennis Oda
>> Daily posts on Wanda Adams’ Merrie Monarch blog
>> A list of halau and kumu hula

I had been watching the three televised nights of competition every year with friends for at least a decade. Like most islanders, however, I'd never scored one of the treasured tickets to the event at the Edith Kanaka‘ole Tennis Stadium.

My friends and I would bust out the pupu, handicap the competition, critique the costumes ("No hula in shoes!", we'd scream at the TV when a Miss Aloha Hula candidate showed up in a holoku with "poie de soie" pumps dyed to match.)

I thought I knew a little about hula and a lot about the Merrie Monarch. Wrong twice.

Over the next six years, I would learn much about the dance and the arts that surround it from the many kumu hula I interviewed, the Miss Aloha Hula candidates, the judges, even knowledgeable audience members. I'd see how prescient were the visions of the late co-founders, Auntie Dottie Thompson and Uncle George Na‘ope, benefiting the Hilo community and the world of hula in ways no one could have imagined at the start.

And I would come to realize that you haven't seen the hula festival until you've been to the hula festival.

The television coverage has much to recommend it: commentary we never hear in the stadium, multiple camera views that reveal the choreography in a way that even the best seats in the house cannot do, your own choice of pupu and comfy seating.

The stadium — an open-ended half-barrel built as a tennis court — offers in contrast a merciless buzz in several languages, an uncomfortable glare at sunset and chilly breezes or even blown-in rain at night, obstructed views and hard, uncomfortable seats.

But the stadium is the real "halekulani" ("house befitting heaven") for hula lovers. There is the intermingled scent of a thousand flowers, the celebrity spotting, the greeting of old friends even if they're just people you see every year and don't really know, you "honi" (kiss) anyway and admire each other's hair adornments or new Sig Zane dresses. And there is hula which, to me, makes the "folk" dance of any other culture seem flat and one-dimensional.

It is so much more than dance: It's chant, it's mele, it's music, it's language, it's every form of Hawaiian craft from coconut fiber weaving to the making of cloth from tree bark, it's dance to the nth power. It is a living culture expressing itself.

It is, as Father George De Costa reminds us each year in a prayer you never hear on TV, "the ha, the breath of life."

I haven't been to the Merrie Monarch for two years, but Tuesday, thanks to the Star-Advertiser, I get to go back, attend rehearsals, check out the craft fairs, eat at all the new and old Hilo restaurants I can manage, drop in at KTA and Big Island Candies and enter the stadium again.

Hele mai, e o mai — come with me, listen to my call — in my Hapa Haole Hula Gal blog, a daily journal of my impressions, experiences and viewpoints, starting today and continuing through Sunday at

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