What happened when you arrived at the Merrie Monarch festival?
I was in shock. People were speaking Hawaiian. Not just a few words – full conversations. I was designated a halau’s (hula school) photographer, but I wasn’t given a seat and was limited to this one little spot near the stage when they performed. Worse, there were hundreds of Hawaiian formalities in place at an event like this. Don’t make eye contact. Take off your shoes and align them on the floor just so. Don’t point your camera there. Don’t put your butt where it doesn’t belong. I was breaking rules without knowing it among leaders of the Hawaiian community. Thankfully, Lynn Cook, one of the veteran members of the halau helped me. But any fears I had entering this shoot only escalated once there.
But isn’t hula the dance that welcomes outsiders?
The hula you see in hotels is for tourists. The Merrie Monarch Festival showcases authentic hula in its purest form. It isn’t tainted by tourism. Preserving this type of hula was a big concern. So I set out to show what makes this type of hula special – not by documenting the festival itself, but by telling the story of one halau (hula troop). I figured that’s a side of Hula not many people ever get access to seeing. My goal was to get behind the scenes and reveal the intimate relationships between the girls, their halau and their kumu (teacher).