With a new home, new hula studio and new baby, kumu hula Tracie and Keawe Lopes of Kaneohe are ready for another year at the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo.
Though they could have taken a break, especially with the birth of their third daughter just two weeks after last year’s festival, the couple decided to participate for the sixth consecutive year.
“We’re going for as long as we can go,” said Tracie Lopes. “We believe in the festival, all that it represents and all that it does for the community. … It’s such a humongous honor to be part of it.”
This year their halau, Ka La ‘Onohi Mai o Ha‘eha‘e, will be bringing its biggest lineup ever, with 25 dancers. Five of the dancers have competed with the halau in each of its past appearances.
After renting a hula studio on Rose Street in Kalihi for many years, the Lopeses purchased a home last year on a half-acre in Kaneohe where they were able to build a separate, 1,000-square-foot practice studio.
A blessing for the new studio was held in the fall. Dancers and friends planted ti, palapalai fern and fragrant pua kenikeni tree.
The halau refers to the area by its historical name, Puahuula, Koolaupoko, Oahu.
Tracie Lopes, 43, holds the 1994 Miss Aloha Hula title and represents a new generation of kumu hula competing at the festival, having grown up admiring many of the kumu hula with whom she now shares the stage.
“It’s not just about being on stage,” she said. “That’s part of it, but it’s more about being part of the whole history of hula.”
The festival, founded by the late Dorothy “Auntie Dottie” Thompson and hula master “Uncle George” Na‘ope, is held every year in honor of King David Kalakaua at the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium.
The event has gained an international reputation as the Olympics of hula, and tickets sell out quickly.
Every year, the festival committee invites halau to compete and selects the judges, who this year include Cy M. Bridges, Nalani Kanaka‘ole, Noenoelani Zuttermeister Lewis, Keali‘i Reichel, Kalena Silva, Alicia Smith and Vicky Holt Takamine.
After last year’s huge celebration marking the festival’s 50th year, “it’s back to normal,” said Merrie Monarch President Luana Kawelu. “We’re looking forward to the 51st year.”
This year 13 dancers will vie for the Miss Aloha Hula title Thursday evening. Seventeen female and 11 male halau are competing in the kahiko (ancient-style) and auana (modern-style) group competitions Friday and Saturday.
MANY HALAU from last year, including winners, are returning.
The 2013 overall winner, Kawaili‘ula, under the direction of kumu hula Chinky Mahoe, will be back. Halau Na Mamo o Pu‘uanahulu, which won first place in kane and wahine kahiko in 2009, is returning after a few years’ hiatus. The halau’s kumu are Sonny Ching and Lopaka Igarta-De Vera.
Three halau are new to the competition: Hilo’s Halau Na Lei Hiwahiwa o Kuualoha, with kumu Sammye Young; Halau Hiiakainamakalehua of Kalihi, with kumu Robert Ka‘upu and Lono Padilla; and Halau Hula Lani Ola of Laguna Hills, Calif., led by kumu Puanani Jung.
Though she now lives in California, Jung, 48, comes from a deeply rooted hula lineage in Hawaii. Her mother, Puanani Alama, is the last living judge from the first Merrie Monarch competition.
Jung’s aunt, her mother’s elder sister, Leilani Alama, died this month after teaching hula for more than 70 years in Kaimuki.
“She and I were very close,” said Jung from California. “For me it’s about making sure that I represent the Alama hula line and making sure their hula lives on.”
Jung’s twin 14-year-old daughters, Ku‘ulei and Ku‘upua, will be in the lineup as they present songs honoring their roots in Kona.
In the solo Miss Aloha Hula competition, Kili Lai, granddaughter of kumu hula Aloha Dalire, continues a legacy.
Lai’s mother, kumu hula Kapua Dalire-Moe, won the title in 1991, 20 years after Aloha Dalire won it in the first Miss Aloha Hula competition. Dalire-Moe’s sister, Kaui Dalire, took the title in 1992, and her youngest sister, Keola Dalire, in 1999.
Dancer Ke‘alohilani Tara Eliga Serrao, 23, will represent the Lopeses in the Miss Aloha Hula competition this year.
Serrao’s mother and father both danced for the late kumu hula O’Brian Eselu, who was Tracie Lopes’ kumu when she took the Miss Aloha Hula title 20 years ago.
Serrao’s kahiko dance, “A Ka La‘i Au i Mauliola,” honors Princess Ruth Ke‘elikolani and is set in Haehae (part of the halau’s name), an area in Puna, Hawaii, where the sun rises.
“All I’m hoping for her is that she has a beautiful Merrie Monarch experience,” Lopes said. “I had a beautiful Merrie Monarch experience. I’m just praying this year that my students can have even a little bit of what I felt 20 years ago, or all of it. But it all depends on them.”
AT A WEEKEND hula retreat at their new home this month, the Lopeses watched with a critical eye as their dancers practiced, offering advice on the proper facial expression for the chant and the hand motions. The retreat was also a time for the dancers to bond as they go over final details.
The group’s kahiko number, “He Aloha no na Pua,” honors King Kalakaua with a mele that was passed down several generations to the Lopeses’ kumu, Kimo Alama Keaulana. It is also the same mele that Eselu performed the first year he competed at Merrie Monarch with his halau, Na Wai ‘Eha ‘o Puna, in 1979.
Because of their new home, the Lopeses felt this was the appropriate time to perform “Ku‘u Home Aloha,” a mele by the late composer Bina Mossman, who started the Hawaiian Civic Club of Honolulu’s annual Holoku Ball. The Mossman home, as it so happens, is right across the street.
“It’s exciting for us to honor a song that was composed in this area,” said Keawe Lopes. “The proper protocol for Hawaiians, when you’re the malihini, or visitor, of the place, (is) you honor the natives. We’re honoring the Mossman family across the street with a song that was composed 100 years ago. So it brings us full circle.”