When the Hawaii Lions Clubs decided to throw "Hawaii’s biggest bon dance ever," they turned to Betty Dela Cuesta.
"Betty is the queen of bon dances. Everybody in the community knows and respects her," said Jennifer Shintani, president of the Moanalua Lions Club.
Sunday’s event will be the main attraction of a free festival at Kapiolani Park that is being held in conjuction with Lions Club International’s 98th convention, which is expected to draw 30,000 visitors from Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Pacific, including 4,000 from Japan alone. The convention started Friday and runs through Tuesday.
Dela Cuesta, 82, and a bon dancer for 53 years, reached out to her islandwide network of bon dance clubs, all of which immediately agreed to participate. The Lions-hosted dance, which is open to the public, will be held from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday in Kapiolani Park.
The local club is hoping for 2,000 bon dance participants, far more than last August’s Okinawan Festival bon dance at the park, which drew an estimated 500 dancers, Shintani said.
Originating in Japan more than 500 years ago, the dances, also known as bon-odori, are a Buddhist tradition honoring departed loved ones.
"Every summer, all the spirits come back, and I’m so happy because my daughter returns," said Dela Cuesta, a classically trained Japanese dancer who led the famous Yamada Dance Group after the death of her teacher, Mabel Yamada. The group was eventually renamed Hawaii Shin Kobukai.
"After my daughter died in 2000, I composed a dance for her called ‘Natsu (summer) Ureshii (happy),’" Dela Cuesta said.
During her evening class Monday in the beautiful, high-ceilinged Moiliili Hongwanji Mission, the slender Dela Cuesta, dressed in a black-and-white summer kimono with red flowers and trim, watched intently as her granddaughter, Lydia Morikawa, 34, led students in the dance.
Dressed in black-and-white hapi coats, a dozen slim, light-footed students — men and women ranging in age from 30 to 70-something — smiled as they stepped in a circle, rehearsing dances choreographed by Dela Cuesta, Yamada and Morikawa, along with a couple of universal favorites. The lovely, often witty dances combined earthy hip and arm swinging and expressive, delicate hand and finger movements evoking, say, the picking and tossing of flowers.
"Leaders call out," said Dela Cuesta, reminding her granddaughter and assistant teachers to give instructions from her seat beside the gilded pillars of the temple’s altar space. Due to a back injury, she no longer dances, but she tapped a white-tabi foot and her graceful, long-fingered hand gestures were mesmerizing.
"Left, right, turn, wave" and "wash your face" were among the call-outs.
The music ranged in style from traditional Japanese folk ballads to Euro-pop to samba. Popular contemporary numbers included "Electric Slide" and "Arigato," based on an anime theme. A children’s favorite from Japan, "Pokemon," will round out the festival dance program. Dela Cuesta’s practice session opened with live singing and drumming by musicians who will also be performing at Kapiolani Park along with dancers in lion costume from Hawaii Eisa Shinyuu Kai.
In the traditional structure of bon dancing, the experienced dancers of Dela Cuesta’s club were ringed by an outer circle of beginners trying to follow along. They included Shintani and her daughter, Lily.
Shintani said she had proposed bon dancing for the Lions festival because it’s a group activity that’s inclusive and increasingly popular in Hawaii with locals and visitors alike.
"Anybody can jump in because the movements are repetitive and simple, so you can pick it up pretty quickly," said Shintani, 62, whose bright smile throughout the evening made her look easily as young as her 35-year-old daughter.
Shintani also felt the dance would resonate with the international Lions crowd. "There are a lot of cultures who do things honoring their ancestors, so there’ll be some commonality, making it also a ‘bond dance.’"
Although it will be held in the heat of the day, the bon dance is slated for the relatively shady section of the park between the bandstand and Waikiki Shell, with the circles weaving around the trees. Instead of a traditional (and heavy) wooden yagura tower holding taiko drummers and other musicians, the dancers will circle a canopied stage on loan from the Jodo Mission of Hawaii, which uses it as a yagura for its own event.
Commemorative towels (a dance accessory that serves double duty mopping sweaty faces) will be sold for $8 while supplies last. Dancers can keep hydrated, cooled and fueled with bottled water, soft drinks, shave ice and ice cream, which will be sold along with Hawaiian, Filipino, Korean and Mexican food and American summer favorites like baby back ribs.
The bon dance is also a fun way to work off calories.
"You can drop in at any time," Shintani urged.
To judge from Monday’s warmup, this bon dance promises a roaring good time for all. Bring a towel (a clean dish towel will do) and a fan.
LIONS CLUBS INTERNATIONAL
Schedule of events:
>> Parade of Nations, with 135 units, 15,000 participants from 200 countries, marching bands and Matilda, a 15-foot inflatable kangaroo, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., from Saratoga Road, down Kalakaua Avenue to Kapiolani Park
>> Lions International Festival, with food, crafts and entertainment, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Kapiolani Park
>> Hawaii’s Largest Bon Dance, noon to 3 p.m. Sunday, Kapiolani Park
>> Info: HawaiiLions2015.com