Dancers honor legacy of late Kumu Hula Johnny Lum Ho at Merrie Monarch Festival
Generations of kāne and wāhine dancers taught by the late Kumu Hula Johnny Lum Ho will take the stage tonight in Hilo to honor “Uncle Johnny” during Hō‘ike Night.
The non-competitive hula exhibition kicks off the 60th annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, with performances on the stage at the Edith Kanakaʻole Stadium.
“It’s certainly feels different,” said musician Mark Yamanaka, who has been playing for Lum Ho’s Hālau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua since 1998. “It’s been a year since he’s been gone. There’s certainly a void without him here. Typically, if he was here, we’d all be at the edge of our seats and on our toes.”
Lum Ho was a renowned kumu hula (hula teacher), musician, composer and recording artist. He founded Hālau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua, which means the rain that Lehua blossoms drink, in Hilo decades ago, winning numerous awards through the years.
He was one of the kumu in the first Merrie Monarch competition in 1971 and made his final trip to the festival’s competition stage in 2018. Through the years, he and his hālau often were favorites at the festival.
Lum Ho died on April 3, 2022, leaving behind a legacy that will be passed on for generations. He was 81.
Yamanaka will perform tonight. So will three hālau now led by Lum Ho’s students who are now kumu hula (hula teachers): Hālau Hi’iakanāmakalehua, Hālau Nā Lei Kaumaka O Uka and Hālau Ka Lehua Pua Kamaehu.
They include Lum Ho student Chrissy Kama-Henriques. The 43-year-old said women who danced with the Hilo kumu from the 80s, 90s and early 2000s are reuniting to honor Lum Ho’s legacy.
“We’re all coming back to dance together,” she said. “It’s super emotional. I hope I don’t cry when I get on that stage. It will probably be the last time we dance together again.”
It also will be the first time they dance without Uncle Johnny.
It doesn’t matter how much time has past. Kama-Henriques said she still can get in line with her hula sisters and dance the same creative Uncle Johnny style.
“That’s what it’s all about: his mele, his style, and most of all his passion for God. He always put God first,” she said. “He would remind us that we wouldn’t be here or have this talent if it weren’t for God.”
Lum Ho was a competition favorite at Merrie Monarch. His choreography was creative and exciting.
“His style was one of a kind,” Yamanaka said. “It was crowd pleasing. Everyone was so willing and accepting to receive whatever Uncle Johnny was presenting.”
Kama-Henriques said Lum Ho’s choreography was literal and visual.
“It’s outside the normal hula steps,” she said. “If we’re getting on a horse [in the hula], we’re going to lift our leg and get on a horse and not just do a kaholo.”
The biggest mark that a dancer is trained by Uncle Johnny is they dance on the balls of their feet. Kama-Henriques said: “We’re not flat-footed.
“… I never knew how big of a difference our style was till I was older. … We were always the crowd pleasers. As long as the crowd liked us, we were good.”
She said it was not about winning the event: “You want to win in your kumu’s eyes. You want to go out and represent him well.”
Kama-Henriques said Lum Ho gave his blessing for her to start teaching his style. She began teaching in 2010 and formed Halau E Hulali Mai I Ka Lā. For Kama-Heriques, she teaches her students everything Lum Ho taught her.
“His legacy is just being able to keep that style,” she said.
Kama-Henriques has been taking her students to the Merrie Monarch Festival where they perform on Sundays during the Ho‘olaule‘a at the Civic Center.
“If we stop teaching that style, it’s gonna die,” Kama-Henriques said. “What I care about is preserving that style and perpetuating it. If we don’t keep passing it down, kids won’t know what it was.”
Yamanaka said practices have been fun as the hālau dancers have prepared to be on stage for Merrie Monarch, doing their best to carry on the excellence instilled in them by Lum Ho.
“There’s been a lot of reflecting on past years, a lot of talking story about the past, how things were and how things are now,” the musician said. “We’re excited to pay tribute to Uncle Johnny. He’s such a legend.”
As she’s attended practices over the past several weeks, Kama-Heriques said she’s been “cherishing every moment. I’m just thankful and grateful for what everyone did for us. It takes a lot of bodies to put this together.”
It also has taken knee braces and ibuprofen.
“We’re putting our lives on the side to honor Uncle Johnny,” she said. “This is the one time you can say thank you for all that you have. Everything I do now revolves around hula.”
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