In Hawaii, there are hula festivals, and then there are major hula festivals.
And then there is the Merrie Monarch Festival.
Held each spring at the Edith Kanakaole Tennis Stadium in Hilo, the Merrie Monarch Festival is one of the most prestigious cultural events in the state. If there were a “Super Bowl” of hula, this would be it. People come from countries all around the world to witness this one-of-a-kind celebration of the Hawaiian dance.
The competition was founded more than 40 years ago by the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce to perpetuate, preserve and promote the art of hula and the Hawaiian culture. Now under the auspices of the private Merrie Monarch Festival community organization, the festival is considered the world’s greatest stage for gifted hula halau (hula schools) and individual dancers to display their talents and knowledge of ancient and modern hula.
Competition categories include group kahiko (ancient hula), group auana (modern) and the solo Miss Hula event.
The festival is dedicated to the memory of King David Kalakaua, Hawaii’s “Merrie Monarch” who ruled the Hawaiian kingdom from 1874 until his death in 1891. Hawaii’s last king, Kalakaua was a major patron of the arts, especially music and dance.
“Auntie” Dottie Thompson, longtime event organizer, told us that the festival has helped spark a renaissance of the Hawaiian culture. “I could see the potential in the Hawaiians to be self-sufficient in their arts and crafts,” she said. “I think that’s been proven, and the festival played a big part in it.”
Thompson retired in 2003 after more than 30 years of service to the event. Her daughter, Luana Kawelu, has assumed the mantle of event coordinator.
The Merrie Monarch Festival presents a full week of festivities, including free hula exhibitions, a hoolaulea, arts and crafts fairs, cultural demonstrations and a colorful parade through downtown Hilo. Order your tickets early because the competitions are usually sold out weeks in advance. Proceeds from the festival support educational scholarships, workshops, seminars and symposiums, as well as the continuation of the festival. The festival is televised on a delayed basis by KITV-4 and videos/DVDs of past festivals are available.