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Fifth world conference on hula underway in Hilo

The fifth Ka ‘Aha Hula ‘O Halauaola conference is under way in Hilo, with about 900 participants from throughout the world converging to share the art of hula through the end of the week.

Hula practitioners began checking in on Wednesday, and a formal opening ceremony was held at Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium on Sunday, featuring more than 500 dancers from Hawaii, the U.S. mainland, Mexico, Japan and Europe. They held a kuahu (altar) ceremony with offerings of lei representing the deities of the forest, followed by an awa ceremony, and then performed two kahiko numbers.

The 10-day conference, held mostly at the stadium and University of Hawaii Hilo campus, includes workshops, lectures and panel discussions by prominent kumu hula from throughout the isles. The chants, hula and protocol for the world hula conference were specifically chosen to honor the stories of Pele and Hi‘iaka, including episodes of eruptions.

“We were planning and the eruption occurred very late,” said Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, director of the conference. “We had a little bit of inquiry — is it dangerous, should we come? I kept saying, we are fine in Hilo. Parts of Kau are very challenged right now, but fortunately, we are not, I said, ‘If you’re a hula dancer or hula practitioner, you want to be here, this is the energy you want to experience.’”

On its website, Lalakea informed participants a few weeks ago that the conference was still on, and that there was no threat to Hilo, saying that the lava flows in lower Puna were more than 20 miles away and that there were minimal effects. Only one participant canceled, said Wong-Wilson, because of concerns about safety.

Kumu hula Debbie Kapua Cabato had no doubt in her mind she would bring her halau to the conference from Fairfield, Calif.

“It’s very, very special,” she said. “A lot of us have had friends and family question if we could continue to come here, and there was no question we were going to come.”

The spirit and movement hula is all about Pele, said Cabato, and there is no better time to be in Hilo than with her present.

Participants are also taking field trips to notable places around the island. Only a few spots were cancelled.

This week’s conference is the last in a series that first began in 2001 in Hilo, and was then held once every four years at a different location, which included Maui (2005), Oahu (2009) and Kauai (2014). The conferences were designed to follow Hi‘iaka’s journey from Hawaii island to Kauai and back, and has come full circle, ending in Hilo this year.

Various halau will be performing at Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium until Friday this week and are free and open to the public. Doors open at 5 p.m., and shows are from 7 to 8:30 p.m. On Wednesday, a special tribute will be paid to late kumu hula Leina‘ala Kalama Heine, one of the co-founders of the world hula conference. On Friday, a kanikapila celebration from 5 to 8:30 p.m. features craft vendors and a live auction, with proceeds going to families in Puna impacted by the Kilauea eruption. The conference closing ceremony is on Saturday.

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