As kumu hula Meleana Manuel proudly watched her haumana (students) step onto the Merrie Monarch stage for the first time, she said she suddenly felt a breeze sweep across the hallowed Edith Kanaka’ole Stadium. It was cool and refreshing, and Manuel said she immediately felt the presence of her kupuna. She took it as an ‘ailona (sign) that their festival debut on kahiko night last week, despite all of the COVID-19 protocols and sweeping changes, was meant to be.
To Manuel’s surprise, the same thing happened the next day during their auana performance. Just as the music started, she recalled, a breeze came through, ruffling her women’s dresses. It blew throughout the entire performance and stopped once they exited the stage. Fittingly, the Volcano halau’s name, Halau Hula Ke ‘Olu Makani O Mauna Loa, pays tribute to the gentle winds of Mauna Loa.
“I honestly think it was our kupuna who were dancing with us. We weren’t dancing for them. We were dancing with them,” Manuel said. “Entering for the first time was the most amazing experience ever. It was worth every single struggle.”
Like Manuel, other kumu hula came away from this year’s Merrie Monarch Festival with a renewed sense of love for hula and excitement that the event could return to Hilo after organizers were forced to cancel it in 2020. Despite all of the new rules and changes, including no live music or audience, mandatory isolation, testing and daily health screenings, many in the hula community persevered and did whatever was needed to bring the popular cultural celebration back.
The festival, which was prerecorded last week, features 15 halau and will air on KFVE beginning tonight with the Miss Aloha Hula competition, followed by group kahiko on Friday, and group auana and the awards presentation on Saturday.
Festival president Luana Kawelu said this year’s competition “turned out so beautiful. The dances were so inspiring. There was so much love and passion shown.” Although two people tested positive for COVID-19, Kawelu said both remained in isolation and that all of the halau were still able to perform because the rest of the 350 participants tested negative.
“Everybody felt so good about coming back to be in Hilo on stage and being able to dance and share the hula with everybody,” Kawelu said. “They didn’t want to go two years without dancing. That was a commitment they made, and they saw it through.”
But for Manuel and other halau, it was not an easy journey to the Merrie Monarch. At the beginning of this year, Manuel’s practices were a mixture of in-person and virtual because of social gathering mandates. Prior to the 5-day mandatory isolation in Hilo, they had to gather all of the flowers and plants to make their lei and adornments. They also struggled with fundraising during the pandemic.
But every challenge was met, Manuel said. And because of the health screenings and protocols, she said her dancers felt safe and were able to focus on their performances.
“I’m so grateful for everything falling into place,” she said. “It was almost like you could let out your breath after holding it in all this time. Behind closed doors, we were able to cry tears of joy and elation for a finished product that we had struggled to get through.”
Kumu hula La’akea Perry felt the same way. Perry, who took the reins of Ke Kai O Kahiki after revered kumu hula O’Brian Eselu died in 2012, said they returned to the Merrie Monarch because “it’s important for us to practice what we live.” The halau’s kahiko and auana mele paid tribute to its founders Eselu and Thaddeus Wilson. Their auana song, Lanikuhonua, composed by Eselu, was the last mele Perry and his kumu worked on together. From Eselu’s hospital bed, they choreographed the beginning part of the song, and Perry finished it eight years later.
But like Manuel and others, Ke Kai O Kahiki struggled, too. It was difficult to book housing and transportation accommodations and to figure out the logistics of traveling because the festival was so different this year. But more than any other Merrie Monarch year, Perry said he felt Eselu’s presence the most last week.
“That feeling was really strong. There were other people there who felt the same way and approached me,” said Perry, who brought all of his kane’s Merrie Monarch flowers and lei to Eselu’s gravesite at Valley of the Temples on Tuesday. “For our people, we needed to get back to what we do. We were determined that we got on that stage no matter what. Everyone made everything happen. It was totally worth it.”
The competition will air on KFVE (Channel 6 or 8) or can be streamed live at hawaiinewsnow.com/merriemonarch.
>> Miss Aloha Hula: 6-10 p.m. today
>> Group kahiko: 6-10:30 p.m. Friday
>> Group auana and awards: 6-10:30 p.m. Saturday
Jayna Omaye covers ethnic and cultural affairs and is a corps member with Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.