This is Hula: More Merrie Monarch notes

By Lynn Cook / Special to the Star-Advertiser on April 9, 2013

Hulaholics seem to agree: Sleep is highly overrated. That had to be the trusim in the final hours of the 50th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival. Looking out over the seats and bleacher benches, it appeared that at least two thirds of the 4,200-person audience was still in the stadium well after midnight when the final awards were presented. The exit procession of the Merrie Monarch Royal Court was a poignant moment, followed by another hour of on-stage photos of winning halau surrounding their kumu.

Crossing the parking lot, somewhere near 2 a.m., the voices of supporters, family and happy dancers drifted from buildings where, earlier in the evening, the dancers were dressed and crowned with flowers. About then our Merrie Monarch chili plate energy is only a memory and the question is: “Go home or go to Ken’s for late night kalbi plate or pork chops and rice?”

Random thoughts pop into your head when you have been sitting on a metal bench four nights in a row. Men dancing. Can’t think of any other place in the U.S. where men seem so totally comfortable on a dance floor. Bombastic, elegant or even a bit comic, men in Hawaii seem totally comfortable dancing hula.

Some have been dancing in a halau, a hula school, since they were 4 or 5. Others joined a halau as teens or even adults. They move in a line, wearing ancient or modern costume, telling stories with their dance. They are students, lawyers, policemen, teachers, athletes, all dedicated to an art. Think about it. Would a mainland high school football team turn out for hula? The answer to that question would be “yes” for kumu Mark Ho’omalu of Oakland, Calif., or kumu Keali’i Ceballos of Los Angeles. After all, this event is described as the largest cultural gathering in Hawaii, an event that may not be equaled in any other state.

A visit to kumu Chinky Mahoe’s halau dressing room led to kumu pointing out the “war wounds” of his men. He says they wanted to do one of those “seated hula.” After months of practice on a hardwood floor their calloused knees said it all. While the dancers practiced, kumu hand-printed many yards of fabric for their costumes.

Members of the audience, stadium staff and volunteers and participating halau all said the same thing, almost like there was a script, the 50th Merrie Monarch Festival had an energy unlike any other year. Rick Frederick, artist-owner of Hawaiian Arts in Hilo, agrees with that. He has been the go-to guy for Merrie Monarch security for 21 years. He also designs and prints all the T-shirts and trains the security team. Those are the guys who spend every day and night helping halau move easily on and off the stage, holding back the crowds, then moving them forward when the time is right. They are the guys who walk up and down the rows of fans saying, “No flash photos, please,” in a don’t-mess-with-me voice.

Rick says he is now second-in-command with Donald Mederios taking the lead. For years Rick put on the barbecue tent for the workers. Not happy being still, and not inclined to dance, Rick puts on the Hawaii State Championship Hilo Bay BBQ Cook Off, July 3-4. He is looking for a few good men, and women, from all islands, who want to win a chance to wind a trip to the big chili competitions on the mainland. Just check out hilobaybbq.com.

But Merrie Monarch isn’t pau. Sunday and Monday are the days for halau to have a brunch, talk about their wins and awards, make their way to the ocean or up the volcano to dance and give thanks for the amazing opportunity to help hula thrive.