Merrie Monarch Festival 2012, Kanaka’ole Stadium, Hilo, Hawaii
The elevated wood stage is well lit by the flood lights above. A giant arch serves as the ceiling, giving the feel of being in a wind tunnel as two sides of the arena are open air. Through that wind, comes a bouquet of smells; fresh night rain, tropical flowers, and big green leaves. Tonight is the first night of Merrie Monarch, the largest Hula competition in the world. It represents the continuation of an ancient culture through live Hawaiian music and expert storytelling through Dance. The theme of the first night is Exhibition, a free show to the public before the competitions begin.
|The King and Queen of Merrie Monarch 2012
As I sit down with friends and family on the hard wood bleachers, a dance group from Japan is assembling onto the stage. They are dressed in flowing floral prints. Their Kumu (Hawaiian for teacher) has brought them out from Tokyo for a once in a lifetime chance to perform Hula in its homeland. After they announce the group, there is an awkward silence. Why is everyone just standing there? A dramatic pause? Did the musician’s mic get unplugged? Did they spontaneously forget their moves? As I scan the stage, my eye catches an elder Japanese lady ambling up the steep ramp which brings the performers to the stage. She obviously has some type of neurological challenge, such as Parkinson’s Disease, as she jitters her body forward in a controlled upwards stumble. She assumes her position next to two elder ladies, and the group commences to dance. The 40 women move with respect, turning and pruning their arms in well practiced moves. If they are under stress, it is hard to see as pure elation beams from the group.
|Merrie Monarch 2012 Hula Kahiko
The elder lady who last entered the stage at first struggles to move here body. It stiff stops, then starts again with a flutter. Her mind knows what she wants to do, and her spirit pushes through her body, trying to move it. Then, something gives way in the Japanese Tutu’s (grandma) body, and her hands unexpectedly flow like water waves in perfect unison to the group. She flows to the left, hits an imaginary wall, changes direction, and once again falls into harmony with the group. So often, I have been taught in American society to feel pity or shame at the sight of someone with a debilitating disease. If this woman feels shame or embarrassment, I could not find it. In fact, the look on her face is pure amazement that she is dancing Hula at Merrie Monarch.
My eyes well with salt and water, and I wipe a tear away at the triumphant sight. This Tutu moves me, putting all of her heart into these movements with a large smile on her face. None of her fellow dancers pity her. They just patiently wait for her to enter the stage and fall into the groove as they have hundreds of times before. For me, the Japanese Tutu embodies pure celebration through the movement of her body. Would I have the strength to dedicate myself through that struggle and still have my dignity? Can I, a young, fit man celebrate like her? The crowd full of Hawaiians cheers for the group, without reservations. These women are truly doing honor to the art they have come to hold dear.
The next remarkable event was a small group of dancers from Rapa Nui. They are a Polynesian people associated with the Easter Islands who have become known throughout the world for their Mo’ai seen in the movie ‘Night at the Museum’. The Mo’ai is the large, statue head that says, “Hello Dum Dum, you got Gum Gum?”. But I think if the world was able to see their unique style of dancing, characterized by a rolling heel swivel movement, people may begin to associate the people or Rapa Nui with their dances. Experienced Tahitian dancers sitting next to me remarked at the distinctive knee movements and how even the muscle structure of the Rapa Nui dancers was different than other Polynesian dancers. Their legs were sleeker with well developed muscles by their shins and inner thighs. The dancers in the crowd wanted to try it!
After a few rounds of storytelling in motion, it’s time for the Pick-up Dance. This is the point where the experienced dancers on stage go out into the crowd and purposely try to find people who have never danced before. The guy sitting a few places from me was taken by an attractive dancer and coaxed onto the stage. He looks to be a man in his late 50’s, possibly from Europe. He stands in front of the woman, still in shock, and the drums begin to play. Then, his body starts moving in ways he didn’t know was possible. The crowd has a laugh, all in good fun. I think to myself, “whew, that was close. That could have been me up there if she had only walked a few more steps.”
They finish the song, but they are not done. They come around again. Another Pick Up Dance. Usually, they only do one. My friend Heather, an award winning competitive Tahitian Dancer, begins her campaign. “This one right here. His name is Kamana. Pick this one!” she says as her hand points down at me from above my head. All of my stealth techniques are destroyed. The young, light skinned Rapa Nui dancer dressed in black and white feathers pulls me from my chair; first with her stage charisma, and then with her hand. I follow her up the ramp onto the stage in a gravitational pull.
As I step onto the stage, the white hot lights come with an air of invigoration. It’s hard to see the crowd, so I forget about them and move in unison with the mysterious feather woman. I glance at the Rapa Nui male dancer, who had roped in a few women from the crowd, and try to copy his movements. It’s not working. So I just cut loose and dance, smiling at the women across from me and trying not to be blinded by the surrounding lights. She giggles. The dance feels like forever, and my legs start to burnout from the movements which I am not used to performing. Plus, I have no idea what I am doing and feel a little bit silly. For a moment, I remember the Japanese Tutu puttering up the ramp. She needed no shame and she was treated with respect. Her reminder to me helps the last remnant of conditioned embarrassment to shake away. I’m celebrating. This is Merrie Monarch. We’re on TV and all of Hawaii is watching. This moment is pure merriment. My spirit is fed, and my untrained body is toast. Just before I drop to one knee, the drums stop and I catch my breath. My blood pumps with a an amazing high, and I laugh freely. “Thank you” I say to the bird dancer as she directs me back to my seat.
“So, did I do alright up there on stage,” I ask my girlfriend, Kaimi, a Tahitian dancer of many years.
“Well…the important thing is that you had fun, honey.”
We Laugh. Luckily, she caught the whole scene in a bootleg video on my smart phone. I posted it on my Facebook wall.