HILO >> For Oahu kumu hula Pattye Kealohalani Wright, the sight of the lava stream flowing in the night was an awe-inspiring and once-in-a-lifetime sight to behold.
Wright, of Kailua, brought a small group of her dancers from Na Puakea o Ko‘olaupoko to Leilani Estates to see the stream flowing from fissure 8, which continues to travel about 17 to 20 miles per hour toward the ocean, as well as to perform a dance and chant for Madame Pele, the volcano goddess of Hawaiian myth.
She and the halau were on Hawaii island last week to participate in the fifth Ka ‘Aha Hula ‘o Halauaola in Hilo, a conference that brought about 900 participants from around the world to learn, share and perpetuate the art of hula.
The 10-day conference, held mostly at the stadium and University of Hawaii-Hilo campus, included workshops, lectures and panel discussions by prominent kumu hula from throughout the isles.
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“It’s a rare opportunity,” she said of witnessing the lava in person. “You really can’t dance hula if you haven’t tasted the land, felt the wind, looked at these places that we dance about. When we dance ‘Aia La o Pele,’ they’re going to see this.”
Hula dancers and practitioners from throughout the world, including the mainland, Japan, Australia, Mexico and Europe, converged to expand their knowledge of hula for 10 days, starting June 14 and ending today with an afternoon closing ceremony.
The conference is the last in a series organized by the Lalakea Foundation that first began in 2001 in Hilo and was then held once every four years at different locations, which included Maui (2005), Oahu (2009) and Kauai (2014). The conferences represent the epic journey of Hiiaka, the younger sister of Pele, from Hawaii island to Kauai and back, and has come full circle, ending in Hilo this year.
“The best of the best come for this,” said Wright of the conference. “Learning takes place at every level. It’s the most meaningful.”
The chants, hula and protocol for the world hula conference were specifically selected to honor the stories of Pele and Hiiaka, including their battles, which resulted in episodes of eruptions, according to director Noe Noe Wong-Wilson. They were selected a year ago, well before the eruptions began May 3.
Call it coincidence, or perhaps Madame Pele was responding in her own way.
“The message which begins today (Sunday) and through the whole week,” said Wong-Wilson, “is how important it is for us to take care of our environment and to live with it, to be in sync with it. We have to take care of our forests. We have to take care of our aina.”
On Sunday more than 500 dancers filled Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium for a formal opening ceremony and performed the chants and hula they had practiced from various corners of the world together, as one. They paid homage to Laka, goddess of hula as well as deities of the forest, offering gifts of lei during a kuahu (altar) ceremony, followed by an awa ceremony for every dancer and two kahiko numbers.
Special care was given to the lei representing the cherished ohia blossoms, which were placed higher on the altar than usual because they are threatened by a fungal blight.
Kumu hula Pualani Kanahele said she believes hula’s worldwide appeal has to do with the relationship and universal appreciation for the elements of nature, which is what hula is about.
In a talk-story session on Pele and Hiiaka on Wednesday afternoon at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, she elaborated on one of the chants performed at the opening ceremony. “A Popoi Haki Kai Koo ka Lua” talks about the crater rumbling, breaking apart and then all of a sudden traveling down to Keahialaka, the old place name for Leilani Estates.
“Anyways, it’s in the chant, and the chant is talking about this eruption eons ago, and so it happens again in the same way,” she said. “It’s a chant of Hiiaka, and it describes exactly what’s happening now.”
Among the programs available were a panel presentation of perspectives on Pele, a class on the classical mele of Pelehonuamea, goddess of fire and volcanoes, and a workshop on “hula kii,” the use of small hand puppets influenced by the dancer in the tradition of the Beamer family.
While vog did reach Hilo at some times during the week, many actively participated in various outdoor activities, which included a special sunrise ceremony at Coconut Island to celebrate the summer solstice, as well as excursions to notable places around Hawaii island.
Most of those excursions were still on, with the exception of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, which has been shuttered due to the earthquakes and damage there. Instead, participants listened to a special panel presentation by kumu hula and went shopping in downtown Hilo to support local businesses.
On Friday a kanikapila celebration at the stadium featured a live auction, with proceeds going to families in Puna affected by the Kilauea eruption. Wong-Wilson said participants were asking how they could help, so the kanikapila became a fundraiser. The conference’s closing ceremony is this afternoon.
Coming from Chicago, kumu Carole Lanialoha Lee felt she a great purpose in bringing her students, particularly with the lava flows going on.
“The lava flow to me is peaceful,” she said. “It always has been for me. And then our theme, what we’re chanting, is all to respect her — even more so we gotta settle Pele.”
In the evenings she and the halau are admiring the glow in the night sky.
Shantell Taylor, a participant originally from Nanakuli who studied in Hilo and now lives in Michigan, was at the conference to reconnect with her roots.
“Hula is alive,” she said. “Not only is hula alive, it is telling the moolelo (stories) of things that are happening right now. It’s really beautiful to have a narrative that has always been alive.”
Before the lava flow Sunday night, Wright and her students danced, offered their lei as hookupu and a chant, still dressed in their bright yellow, olena-dyed skirts and tops from the opening ceremony earlier that day.
Witnessing the awe and beauty of Pele was a dream come true for many of her students that night, she said. It was an emotional, spiritual experience to see the lava up close, to hear it and offer their gifts to Pele — and unforgettable.
“I think when you’re in the presence of that kind of power, makes you realize we’re so powerless and small and insignificant, kind of puts us in our place,” she said. “You realize we’re just a small part of all that goes on around here. It was really a spiritual experience for all of us.”