Each hula halau has a different volcano practice, visiting on different days. Some head up the mountain the minute they arrive on Hawaii island, others bring their lei to gift Pele on Sunday or Monday. Others come early to pick lei greens, but only with permission from the property owner and Pele.
Many halau members told tales of the rain blowing sideways in the wettest visit and wettest Merrie Monarch weekend in recent history. In the distant past, the power went out all over Hilo. This year the parking area was a sea of mud and folks were wearing garbage bags (clean, of course) as they waited in line to enter the stadium or dashed for their cars after the last hula of the evening.
Halau Mohala ‘Ilima makes their visit on the Monday morning after the festival weekend. This year, raindrops fell, maybe four or five of them, and then the hula pa, the hula platform, and lawn were rain-free. Kumu hula Mapuana de Silva chanted, entering the hula platform. Her kumu graduates danced, followed by her halau members. They presented their Merrie Monarch Festival hula to Pele and to the lucky audience in the park.
A group of school students from Hilo town, led by their teacher, came quietly in and sat on the grass. After several hula were performed it was time to go. One student told his teacher, “Please, can we stay? We can see the lava tube anytime but we might never see anything like this hula.” The teacher answered that next year the Wednesday night Merrie Monarch Ho’ike would have to be on their excursion list.
The hula platform faces the steam plume from the molten core of the volcano. The plume drifts gracefully up and off toward the Ka’u district. From the hula pa the dancers have a view very different from the 5,000 faces they have seen, for the past three nights, from the Merrie Monarch stadium stage. This audience, seated on the grass, watches the dancers, looking like they might have looked as they danced for royal audiences.
Sarah Kapuahelani Sterling, the Miss Aloha Hula entrant for Halau Mohala ‘Ilima danced for her family, friends and Pele. She was awarded third place in the 2014 competition and is first in the hearts of her hula sisters.
The Merrie Monarch dancers watched Pua then danced their kahiko set and a bit more. Pressure off until their next big competition performance, they laughed, enjoyed the day and, hula skirts put away, made a beeline to the Volcano Arts Center to shop.
Just hours away, the flight back to Honolulu where jobs, school and another reality will set in.
Lynn Cook is a freelance arts and cultural writer who has studied hula for 25 years.