By the time Merrie Monarch concludes on Saturday night, everyone is exhausted. The dancers, certainly. The helpers, equally. The audience, unexpectedly – it’s stressful, cheering and hoping for your favorite troupe. There is no big cash prize at this competition, no international fame. If lucky enough to be invited, a hālau will spend all year fund-raising. If they are lucky enough to be invited again, they will do the same. There is no glory but the glory of the performance.
After all the dances are finished, the judges meet to tally their scores and confer. And here’s when the best, most magical part of the weekend begins: the kumu dance, when all the competing troupes’ teachers take the stage. Kumu – who, once they reach that position, are generally just called kumu, their personal identities eclipsed by their stature – tend, like cult leaders, to be equal parts terrifying and magnetic, despots capable of great benevolence and beauty. In a hālau, the kumu’s word is absolute and inarguable. They can be withering in their assessments.
And yet before they were kumu, they were dancers. Up onstage they climb, some of them so old they totter, and together, they begin to dance. Hula is defined by its spirit of generosity, and to be a good hula dancer is to be humble: Many of its gestures are about offering something to someone else, and this is the kumu’s opportunity to offer something to their fans and their dancers, both. The band plays something familiar, a mele the kumu know so well that their feet and hands register the song before their ears do. Together, they dance, mouthing the words to the song, their necks and shoulders heaped with leis from their students and admirers. Because it is a mele, and an ‘auana hula, they are all smiling. In their movements, they look the same, but they also look different. They break in the middle of their dancing to embrace one another, and to blow lasses to the crowd, which is screaming for them. If the band has chosen well, it is a song that not only the kumu know but everyone in the audience, at home and in the stadium, knows too. In that moment, you can hear the islands sing.
For Kuhao Zane, dancing hula was sort of inevitable. He took his first lesson at 9, and today, the 34-year-old is the sixth generation to perform with Hālau O Kekuhi, one of the oldest dance companies in Hilo, co-founded in 1970 by his grandmother, Edith Kanaka’ole. (Kanaka’ole also helped establish the Merrie Monarch Festival, whose stadium is named for her.) The troupe specializes in kahiko, or traditional hula, as opposed to the ukulele and hip-swinging ‘auana, which Zane describes as “the difference between a religious form of yoga and hot-booty yoga.”
In kahiko, there’s no music, just chanting and percussion (drumming, stomping, and clapping). Tightly packed lines of dancers move in sync through a mix of fast-paced steps reminiscent of martial arts and slow, undulating arm gestures that mimic the ancient Hawaiian religious rituals directed toward the gods – notably the fire goddess Pele, who, according to legend, created the islands. The regalia the dancers wear is as significant as the dance itself, with every element – the hand-printed cloth skirts, plants like ti leaves and jasmine flowers – symbolizing a divine offering.
For weeks leading up to the festival, the 100 or so dancers – most of whom have day jobs – train like a pre-season sports team, practicing four or five times a week. “I stop surfing and skating so I don’t get injured,” Zane says. The troupe can’t actually compete since Zane’s mother, Nalani Kanaka’ole, is one of the head judges, but they open the festival on exhibition night. Zane says that he and his cousins, many of whom also dance, weren’t raised fluent in Hawaiian. But by dancing hula, he says, they speak “the language of the land.”