Each spring, the Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium on Hawai‘i Island roars with exhilaration and pride as thousands of footsteps announce the arrival of hula’s most prestigious event.
The same way that sports fans worship championship games during peak season, avid hula fans consider the Merrie Monarch Festival the ultimate highlight of the year. After watching powerful hula noho (seated hula) accompanied by booming Hawaiian chants and seeing bridal-length trains on elegant modern gowns, you’ll never look at a kitsch grass skirt and coconut bra the same.
The Merrie Monarch Festival was founded in 1963, under the leadership of cofounders Dottie Thompson and George Na‘ope to honor King David Kalākaua, Hawai‘i’s last reigning king, whose storied legacy includes the restoration of hula after Christian missionaries banned it in the mid-1800s. An avid lover of the arts, Kalākaua fought to revive the sacred dance, resulting in an artistic resurgence and earning him the nickname “The Merrie Monarch.” This moniker would endure and eventually become the name of the epic hula festival, which transformed hula into a global phenomenon.
Nurtured by Thompson’s daughter, Luana Kawelu, the Merrie Monarch Festival has evolved into a weeklong festival that transforms quaint Hilo town into a booming mecca of hula pandemonium, with artisans selling crafts and musicians performing songs everywhere you turn.
The festival begins with proper Hawaiian protocol, represented by a formal Hawaiian court procession to honor the year’s elected monarchs. Hō‘ike (exhibition) night then celebrates artistic expression, where non-competing hālau (dance troupes) and dancers from other countries such as Aotearoa, Tahiti and Samoa perform for the royal court and spectators. The competition that follows is an exhilarating three days, with more than 20 invited hālau competing in three categories: the women’s solo title, group hula kahiko (traditional dance), and group hula ‘auana (modern dance), and an awards ceremony. A royal parade concludes the festival, honoring the newly crowned Miss Aloha Hula solo winner, who is the world ambassador of hula during her reign, as well as celebrated individuals from the royal court and local community.
Kumu hula (hula teacher) ‘Iliahi Paredes has participated in the Merrie Monarch Festival 11 times—six as an ‘olapa (dancer) of the late kumu hula O’Brian Eselu, and five as an instructor of hula school Hālau Kekuaokāla‘au‘ala‘iliahi, alongside his wife, kumu hula Haunani Paredes. He reflects on his years as a dancer, in awe of the perspective Eselu shared with his then-student about the grand event. “[O’Brian] would say that Merrie Monarch, because of it being televised and recorded for the world to see, is hula’s encyclopedia. Generations of po‘e hula (hula people) will be able to look back at Merrie Monarch and witness the state of hula at that time period. Most important, iconic dances performed by iconic hālau are being preserved because of the Merrie Monarch Festival,” he says.
Unbeknown to many who watch, the journey to the stage is an incredible feat, as each hālau trains for up to a year before the festival, and must raise upward of $40,000 in travel, accommodation, costume and adornment fees. In order to do so, hālau diligently fundraise to support their competition efforts. Additionally, extra training and conditioning are added to weekly practices to ensure dancers can perform at their highest physical potential, which often includes the ability to chant and dance simultaneously with unparalleled precision. Each hālau must also submit mandatory fact sheets to the panel of judges many weeks before the competition to indicate the hālau’s understanding of the chosen mele (songs), researching heavily on historical figures or events in Hawaiian history. Knowledge of the mele’s cultural references are reflected in the costume and adornment selections. From the type of flowers and foliage that adorns the dancers to the color and style of the costumes they wear, every aspect of the presentation is chosen with great intent to bring life to the mele and its composer.
Some hālau refer to traditional practices to focus their efforts on the task at hand, employing a hula kapu (taboo) of restrictions on dancers. The guidelines of hula kapu are determined by the kumu hula and may differ among hālau, but all instill the values of discipline, accountability and unity within the group in the months leading up to the competition. This may include the removal of distractions such as TV and Internet, vices of alcohol or smoking, and dietary restrictions for both practical and spiritual purposes. (For instance, don’t eat a he‘e, commonly known as an octopus, because the word also means to slip or fall.) As a culture whose history is rooted in oral tradition, Hawaiian language is revered and, thus, even in daily practice, its significance is honored.
This year, six-time participant Julyen Kaluna will return to the stage with Hula Hālau ‘O Kamuela under the direction of kumu hula Kau‘i Kamana‘o and Kunewa Mook. Despite the stress of this high-pressured performance, she finds refuge onstage, as do many of her peers.
“Walking to the stage, my hands become clammy and I start getting really anxious, but, once I step onto the stage, the nerves suddenly go away,” she says. “With the bright lights beaming, I can barely see any actual faces in the audience and, before I know it, the moment is over. When our performance is finished, I know I left my heart on the stage.”
For many hula dancers, competing at the Merrie Monarch Festival is the highest achievement, marking their excellence as a performer to bring the stories of the mele and the vision of their kumu to life. For their kumu, presenting their creativity on such a renowned platform through the captivating skill of their haumāna (students) is an honor.
While it’s nearly impossible to get tickets to the live competition (it’s already sold out this year), the popularity of the festival has skyrocketed thanks to its growing accessibility on Hawai‘i TV and on the Internet. Hula fans from around the world can now tune in online to watch the entire competition as it is live-streamed.
The final day of competition’s results may celebrate the achievements of those who leave with awards, but Haunani offers a different insight: “The Merrie Monarch viewer should enjoy each precious moment of the competition. Individually, we’ll always have subjective eyes and be attracted to certain performances over others, but let’s not forget that every hālau, kumu and haumāna worked so hard to get to the stage, and we are all blessed to witness the beauty.”
As each dancer, kumu and musician takes to the stage during the Merrie Monarch Festival from now to April 2 for the world’s Hawaiian jubilee, celebrate their achievements with gratitude for their steadfast commitment to perpetuating the timeless art.
This article, "Merrie and Bright," was originally published in the March/April 2016 issue of HAWAIʻI Magazine.