Story by Audrey Coleman
Photo by Adam Lejak
Slack key master Cyril Pahinui plays to a restless audience waiting for the judges to announce the winners of E Hula Mau. He gets a few bars into “Hi‘ilawe” when suddenly the event emcee walks to the center of the stage and bursts into a spontaneous dance. The audience roars as kumu hula Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett stretches his arms to evoke the mountain mists, his hands in flight like birds in the song. This is the kind of thing that happens at the E Hula Mau Hula & Chant competition in Long Beach, California.
This Labor Day weekend, Hewett will again emcee the seventeenth E Hula Mau (“the hula lives”) competition. Fourteen hälau (schools)—thirteen from California and one from Las Vegas—will compete in hula kahiko (ancient hula) and hula ‘auana (contemporary hula). Most of the dancers were born on the Mainland; over half of the kumu (teachers) are from Hawai‘i.
For three intense days, some fifteen thousand hula devotees cheer the halau as they compete before a panel of discerning judges. “We decided that all the judges would be from Hawai‘i and have the experience, the knowledge and the expertise,” says E Hula Mau co-founder Michael Crabbe, who danced in Robert Cazimero’s halau in the ’70s. Renowned Maui kumu hula Hokulani Holt-Padilla served as head judge last year; Leialoha Amina will take on the role in 2011.
The competition is respected for its rigor. To enter, a kumu submits video of a hälau’s performance. If accepted, kumu must not only run their students through the gauntlet but also prepare for a grilling by the judges. “For every performance the kumu have to explain their choices,” says Crabbe, “why they selected a certain lei, why they designed a costume in a certain way. … If you have an ocean number with the wrong lei, that affects the performance because it’s not pono, it’s not correct.”
Over the years, some of the halau have gone on to what Crabbe calls “the Super Bowl of Hula,” the Merrie Monarch Festival, held every spring in Hilo. “We did not set it up to be that way,” says Crabbe, “but E Hula Mau becomes the training ground. It pushes everybody.”