HILO (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Merrie Monarch festival in Hilo – paying homage to King David Kalakaua and celebrating all things hula - is in its 49th year.
The competition was added in 1971, and this is the first time in festival history that a Big Island halau is not in the running. What's a Merrie Monarch competition without the home team?
"I've had customers come in and go, 'So, who are we going to watch?'" says Halau O Ke Anuenue kumu hula Glenn Vasconcellos. He tells them, "'Everybody else!' 'But there's nobody from our island,'" they answer. "This is true, and it's the first time."
Vasconcellos says he and his dancers needed a rest. The competition is, afterall, a huge commitment. "Then, to gear up for next year and come back, hopefully, full force," he explains.
Next year is a biggie. It's the festival's 50th anniversary, and word is: many Big Island halau are sitting out and saving up for 2013. But plenty of groups are waiting in the wings. Four halau are new to the competition this year, including Halau Kekuaokala'au'ala'a'iliahi from Wailuku.
"It was so cute to see," recalls Luana Kawelu, the festival director. "Their oldest dancer is 17 years old, and when they walked in the stadium, they were just oooing and ahhing because that's the first time they've seen the stage."
Of the 4,200 audience seats in this stadium, about half will go to halau. The other tickets sell-out within a day - with requests from all over the world.
Festival organizers invited 23 halau in all, and between kane and wahine, they'll perform 30 dances.
This year's celebration is tinged with heavy hearts over the recent passing of kumu hula O'brian Eselu - who had an integral role in planning next year's golden anniversary. Kawelu says, "Everyone's saddened by the loss of O'brian. He was a big part of the hula world."
But even with losses and absences, the show must go on – and it's now the dancers time to step up and shine.