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The Merrie Monarch Festival

Keiki girls dancing hula

Courtesy Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Joe Solem.

The week following Easter proves to be an exciting time of celebration for native Hawaiians and visitors alike.  When the Merrie Monarch Festival takes place on the Big Island in Hilo, Hawaii, the air is filled with music, as the city is in full swing to celebrate Hawaiian heritage.  This week-long festival is replete with music, arts and crafts, traditional food, and most importantly:  hula dance competitions!  The festival hosts a hula demonstration in the midweek, and ends with the most popular event on the final three nights: the official hula dance competitions.

Origins of the Festival

When did this begin?

The Merrie Monarch Festival is held in honor of King David Kalakaua, who was the last official king of the Hawaiian Islands.  He was known as a patron of the arts, as well as an upholder of Hawaiian custom and traditions.  His coronation day featured the first public display in decades of traditional hula dance.

During his highly celebrated 17 year-long reign (1874-1891), King Kalakaua poured into Hawaiian culture, by instituting public performances of hula dance, and playing traditional Hawaiian music.  Kalakaua also emphasizing the importance of other aspects of Hawaiian culture, such as mythology, medicine and chants, but is primarily known for his love of hula dance.

History of Hula

Hula is an ancient tradition originating from the passing down of tales, myths, folklore, and culture of Hawaii. It is a combination of oral story-telling, in accordance with smooth body gestures and vocals, representing the flow of nature, such as the movement in the ocean, wind through the trees, etc.

Often the stories centered on the Hawaiian gods and goddesses, and were used as a prayers/ritual dances in honor of the Volcano goddess Pele.  The goddess Laka, the keeper of the dance, was honored with prayers, offerings and leis which were bestowed by the dancers.  The dance was performed while men chanted the mele (songs), relaying poetry while the women danced and instruments played.  These instruments consisted of drums (made from sharkskin), castanets, rattles, vegetable gourds, etc.  Men wore loin cloths, and women wore skirts typically made of grass. The dancers were adorned with leis around their necks, wrists and ankles, which were to be presented at the altar of Laka during the performance.

Originally hula (or ha`a as it was known in ancient times), was banned in the early 1800’s when missionaries to the Hawaiian Islands believed that their traditions were pagan.

When King Kamehameha (reigning 1782 –1819) attempted to reinstitute hula as a nationally celebrated practice, he received strict limitations on both movement and costume.  The women dancing were made to wear hula dresses with long sleeves and high necks, since the local missionaries believed the original costumes were offensive.  This remained until the famed King Kalakaua insisted that traditional hula dance be performed in the original costume at his coronation.  Thereafter, hula dancing was practiced in its intended manner.  King Kalakaua openly encouraged the art form, even adding new moves, costumes, words and songs to the celebration.

Unsurprisingly, Hollywood took an interest in the beautiful dance of the indigenous Hawaiians, rendering it famous through numerous depictions in film. Adding guitar and ukulele, hula was becoming more commercialized.  This kind of hula is called hula ‘auana, meaning “to wander, or drift” and is used in reference to modern hula dancing, with influences in the 20th and 21st centuries.  The hula kahiko, refers to hula dance that is more reflective on ancient styles in choreography and music (generally those composed before the 1890’s).  Modern hula dancing combines a wider variety of movements and interpretations, though hula dancing originated with only 6 different moves.  Both forms of hula are taught in a group setting, called a halau.

History of the Festival of the Merrie Monarch

The festival first began in 1963 following severe economic challenges when the sugar industry collapsed.  In an effort to increase morale and tourism to the Big Island of Hawaii, a decision was made by the Helen Hale, the head of the county at the time, to establish an annual festival celebrating Hawaiian tradition.

The first Merrie Monarch celebration included a King Kalakaua beard-look-alike contest, a relay race, a barbershop quartet, a reenactment of the king’s coronation, and a holoku traditional Hawaiian ball gown event.  In 1968, when the festival’s popularity began to decrease,  the Executive Director Dottie Thompson introduced the hula competition, with an emphasis on the Hawaiian tradition and history of the art.  Now the Merrie Monarch Festival is almost entirely centered on the hula competitions,  drawing large audiences and competitors from around the world to the festival. The Merrie Monarch Festival is run by a non-profit organization, donating proceeds to support educational scholarships, seminars and symposia.



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