Halau O Kekuhi performs in front of the Iolani Palace bandstand in 2017.

Photos courtesy of Moanalua Gardens Foundation

The legacy of Hawaii's annual Prince Lot Hula Festival

Thousands of graceful hula feet have danced in honor of Kamehameha V at Hawaii’s oldest and largest noncompetitive hula celebration.

In the era of modern hula, organized competitions such as the Merrie Monarch Festival have increasingly become the standard by which the reputation of halau hula (hula schools) are measured. After all, the spirit of competition is one that inherently encourages passion, unity and ingenuity. But 40 years after the first dancer graced its stage, the Prince Lot Hula Festival remains the antithesis of that competitive spirit. As Hawaii’s premier noncompetitive hula festival, the Prince Lot Hula Festival is distinguished by its dedication to inclusiveness and its celebration of the hula community. Offering a free public showcase of hula excellence in honor of King Kamehameha V, born Prince Lot Kapuaiwa, the altruistic vision of the festival’s founders continues to be a gift to those whose sole intent is to honor the expression of Hawaii’s unique cultural heritage. 

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In the early days of the Prince Lot Hula Festival, circa 1978–1979, dancers performed on a flatbed truck. 
Photo courtesy: Moanalua Gardens Foundation

Held each summer on the third weekend of July and hosted by celebrated local entertainer Kimo Kahoano, the festival invites locals and visitors to partake in a wealth of cultural workshops, demonstrations, food booths, craft vendors and, of course, world-class hula presentations. From its inception, the festival was intended to be a gift to the community as a free public event that would honor all forms of Hawaiian arts and crafts. In eliminating the element of competition, it aimed to create an inclusive environment for all skill levels, age groups and styles of hula—kahiko (ancient) and auana (modern) alike. These broad categories allowed kumu (teachers) to create without rules or limitations, resulting in a diverse array of performances by dancers whose love for hula is pure and infectious. Although the festival bears similarities to hula competitions, awards are not given to halau based on their performances, but rather to recognize the profound work of kumu hula and chanters who have committed their lives to their practice. It is a fitting tribute to the art form, as the festival itself was born out of one family’s devotion to preserving cultural integrity. This family would channel that devotion into the creation of a passion project aimed at protecting the sanctity of cultural rights, a project now known as the Moanalua Gardens Foundation.

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Until its move to Iolani Palace in 2017, the Prince Lot Hula Festival took place at Moanalua Gardens, which was once home to King Kamehameha V.
Photo courtesy: Moanalua Gardens Foundation

A nonprofit organization, the Moanalua Gardens Foundation was established in 1970 by visionary sisters Frances “Patches” Damon Holt and Harriet “Haku” Damon Baldwin. At the time, the state was seeking a conduit from the Windward Side through the Koolau Mountains to Pearl Harbor, and sought the privately owned property to construct a highway through Kamananui Valley in Moanalua. As two of the beneficiaries of the Damon estate, the sisters were adamant about protecting the valley due to its importance as a center of hula, which had been banished in the 1830s with the arrival of Christian missionaries, and oli (chant). The site was once home to Prince Lot, who had been instrumental in furthering hula traditions in the Moanalua district. During his reign from 1863–1872, the king utilized the grounds of his summer home in Kamananui Valley to host celebrations where hula could be publicly performed. The bold move was indicative of Prince Lot’s commitment to upholding cultural traditions and preserving its sacred arts. The property thus became a treasured respite, acknowledging the rebirth of hula as a proud Hawaiian tradition before King David Kalakaua formally reinstated its practice in the 1880s. 

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The opening procession honoring Prince Lot with a portrait of the monarch at the 2017 festival.
Photo courtesy: Moanalua Gardens Foundation

Determined to preserve the cultural history and artifacts of their storied home, the Damon sisters established the Moanalua Gardens Foundation as an activist organization to protest the construction of the highway. Their efforts proved successful after many years of arbitration, and the future Interstate H-3 was eventually rerouted through Halawa Valley. Following their triumphant efforts to protect Kamananui, the Damon sisters focused their resources on environmental stewardship and cultural programming. In 1978, to honor the legacy of Prince Lot and return the property to its original hula function, Nalani Olds and Wendell Silva founded the Prince Lot Hula Festival on the grounds of the estate.    

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The 2017 Prince Lot Hula Festival.
Photo courtesy: Moanalua Gardens Foundation

The community response over the years has been overwhelming, catalyzing the expansion of the celebration to two full days to accommodate the growing number of participating halau. Managing director Pauline Worsham, a steadfast festival organizer for over 12 years, recalls the early days of the burgeoning festival through photos and stories shared by those who came before her. “The first two or three years were very small. The dancers performed on a flatbed truck that was decorated with ti leaves,” she says with a laugh. It took three years for a traditional pa hula (mound) to be constructed and consecrated in 1980, which served as the performance space. The site has remained a landmark for countless hula practitioners who have performed there. Executive director Alika Jamile takes pride in watching generations of kumu hula flourish on the Prince Lot Hula Festival stage. “In the past few years, we have seen students who once were dancers now bringing their own halau to the festival.  They are continuing the legacy of their kumu, some of whom have since passed on,” he explains. The festival has continued to be a pillar for the community, nurturing generations of practitioners on its ever-changing stage. The most noticeable change in recent years, however, is the site of the festival, which was moved for the first time in its 40-year history. 

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Halau Hula O Hokulani at the 2017 Prince Lot Hula Festival.
Photo courtesy: Moanalua Gardens Foundation

In 2017, it transitioned from the lush Moanalua Gardens to the regal grounds of Iolani Palace. The palace grounds are an appropriate and touching venue to host the celebration, as its connection to Prince Lot and his royal family are profound. This marked a significant new chapter for the event, which has grown to accommodate an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 guests a day. 

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Halau Hula O Maiki at the 2017 Prince Lot Hula Festival.
Photo courtesy: Moanalua Gardens Foundation

A highlight for festivalgoers and participants is the improvisation its structure invites. “One of the most moving things about the Prince Lot Hula Festival is that you’ll have these spontaneous moments that you won’t find in competition,” Worsham says. She describes a moment in 2017, when kumu hula Cy Bridges accepted the festival’s Namakahelu Oli award for master chanters, and was surprised by his own haumana (students) during his acceptance. “The halau came and performed an oli and hula for their kumu, and he spontaneously got up and shared a hula himself! For something like that to happen, everybody was touched by it,” Worsham recalls.

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Halau Mapuna Leo (left) and Halau Hula O Hokulani (right) perform in 2017.
Photo courtesy: Moanalua Gardens Foundation

For kumu hula Vicky Holt-Takamine, the inaugural year of the festival marked her halau’s first anniversary. She says each year since then is a proud reminder of their shared history. “The festival became the celebration of our halau anniversary every year. Everybody brings mea ai (food), we have a picnic on the grounds and we sit and watch hula all day. To me, that’s one of the best celebrations of our halau anniversary as well as hula.” Holt-Takamine received two of the festival’s three awards in 2017, the Malia Kau and Kukui O Lota awards. The former acknowledges her dedication to perpetuating hula traditions as a kumu hula, and the latter (given once every five years) honors her as an embodiment of the Moanalua Gardens Foundation’s values and the personal motto of Prince Lot himself, “onipaa,” which means to remain steadfast and persevere. 

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Once on the festival grounds, attendees can peruse Hawaiian wares and crafts made by local artisans, as well as go on free tours of the Iolani Palace. 
Photo courtesy: Moanalua Gardens Foundation

By offering a platform for Hawaiian food, crafts, artisans and hula traditions to thrive, the Moanalua Gardens Foundation has realized its mission to preserve the native culture and environment of Hawaii. As the festival sets new roots at Iolani Palace, it further commits its resources to the community with the addition of free palace tours throughout the 2018 event. Though the scene of the Prince Lot Hula Festival has evolved, it continues to be a gathering place for cultural practitioners and spectators to unite through their shared love of hula.

41st Annual Prince Lot Hula Festival 

Admission is free, but festivalgoers can contribute to the organization by donation or through its annual fundraiser with a purchase of the Moanalua Gardens Foundation button.

When & Where:  Saturday, July 21 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday, July 22 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Iolani Palace, 364 S. King St., Honolulu, moanaluagardensfoundation.org.