How were you introduced to the halau?
It was like, “By the way there’s this photographer. You’ll see her here and there.” That was it, and that was a problem. I didn’t want this photo essay to simply showcase the event. My challenge was getting the halau’s kumu (teacher), named Mapuana de Silva, to let me shoot the dancers off stage. But after day one, I realized what I wanted was going to be extremely difficult to get. Mapu didn’t want me shooting the girls out of context, which meant I was limited to that two-foot space next to the stage. So I had to come up with a plan.
What’d you do?
I set up a photo booth under the concrete bleachers where the girls prep. This area was closed off with drapes, and initially I wasn’t even allowed to peek my head in. So I set up a photo booth just outside to catch the girls as they came off the stage. But Mapu saw my booth, and with one look to Lynn, I knew it wasn’t going to happen and I took it down.
Why was everyone so guarded?
Most of the fears are based on how hula has been portrayed by tourism. Also, Lynn called the Merrie Monarch Festival the Olympics of hula, stating you can’t just get in the face of an athlete and snap photos as they prepare for competition. Halaus from all the Hawaiian Islands prepare all year for the event. It’s an intense process. Every dress and lei must be identical so a group moves as one. A single lei leaf falling on the dance floor deducts points. So everything is crafted with staggering detail, and culminates with a final dress check from Mapu just before going onstage. If a dancer meets her approval, Mapu ties a lei around her neck, and whispers a personal message. It feels a bit like a coronation, and while I couldn’t hear what Mapu whispered, I could tell this was a deeply personal moment between a student and teacher.