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Our Man in Hawaii: Scenes From the 50th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival

A story about the 50th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, Hawaii, with the prestigious hula competitions.
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I didn’t know what to expect as I boarded a plane for Hilo, Hawaii, to attend the 50 Annual Merrie Monarch Festival, held April 4-6. I was told that winning or placing in the dance competition is one of the greatest honors in all of hula. Later I would learn the festival is more than just a dance competition, it’s a celebration of Hawaiian culture, traditions, honor and pride. 

As I arrived at the Edith Kanaka?ole Stadium, site of the festival, I could not help but notice the dozens of hula fans holding up handmade signs reading “Need tickets." Admission tickets to the event go on sale each year on the 26th of December and sell out in a few hours. Merrie Monarch is definitely the hottest ticket in Hawaii that weekend.

Ken Sklute/Merrie Monarch Festival

As I entered the stadium it smelled like a flower bed, as almost every person in attendance wore freshly picked flower leis. Most of the visitors where dressed in beautiful Polynesian style attire, and as I looked around I remember saying to myself, “What a beautiful audience." The evening began with honor and respect given to the members of Hawaiian Royalty as they took their seats. Then came the singing of the Hawaiian Kingdom's national anthem, entitled "Hawai'i Pono'i." The entire arena sang the song together with such honor and conviction it was quite evident Hawaiian people take an amazing pride in their traditions. I later learned the Hawaiian National Anthem was composed by King David Kalakaua in 1876 honoring King Kamehameha I. King David was known as the Merrie Monarch because he brought hula back to the Hawaiian people after it was forbidden by missionaries.

If there was a world championship of hula dancing Merrie Monarch would be it. Only 25 of the best halaus ( hula schools) in the world are invited to compete in the festival. The men and women each have their own competition which is broken into three nights; the first night is for individual female competitors and the winner gets the honor of being called Miss Aloha Hula. The following night is for kahiko, which is the traditional style of hula, and the last night auana, the more contemporary style of hula dance. The Miss Aloha Hula competitors are not judged on their poise and beauty but on their traditional o’oli (chanting) and hula dancing skills. This year’s winner was Manalani Mili Hokoana English of Waiohuli, Maui. 

Merrie Monarch Festival

Miss Aloha Hula 2013, Manalani Mili Hokoana English

My favorite night was definitely the kahiko style. I loved the drumming and o’oli, it really reminded me of a team dance contest at a pow wow. It was interesting how the crowds have no problem cheering for dancers when they are impressed by a certain step or routine. The women cheered loudest when the men of the Halau Ke Kai O Kahiki took the stage--these guys definitely didn’t miss any time in the gym. Despite being a crowd favorite they only managed to take fourth place in the kahiko competition.

Cliff Matias

Ladies Choice: Ke Kai O Kahiki

The auana night was a display of some of the most beautiful dance routines I have ever seen. One interesting thing I noticed was no one would get up or move around the arena when the dancers performed: I was told it is disrespectful to walk around as dancers are sharing.

During the day time at the festival, the civic center hosted an arts and crafts market place with invited-only traditional artists creating work and selling their wares. Saturday afternoon was the Merrie Monarch Royal Parade which was a fun display of floats and representatives of Hawaiian Royalty from each of the Hawaiian Islands.

Cliff Matias

A Native Hawaiian artist at the Merrie Monarch artists' market.

I was truly surprised to see just how much the Hawaiian people support this festival. Even the governor of the state of Hawaii was in the audience one of the evenings. Local television stations air all the completion live over the three days. I happened to stroll past a pub Saturday evening on my way to the festival: I was surprised to see a packed house all watching the hula competition on a giant wide screen as if the Super Bowl was on.

I met with Kathy Kawelu, who is the daughter of the president of the festival and serves as the vice president of Merrie Monarch. I asked her if they had any plans to make the event larger and move to Honolulu which has stadiums that could raise their audience by more than 10,000 to 15,000 visitors annually.

“We have many offers to move the event out of Hilo to Honolulu which would handle more people, but that is not what this event is about. It was created to be a small town celebration to bring tourism to Hilo. We only charge $25 for a three day ticket because we never wanted this event to be about making money” said Kawelu.

Cliff Matias

A young fan enjoys the Merrie Monarch parade.

The Merrie Monarch Festival was certainly a wonderful experience--it was like a pow wow Hawaiian-style. Mahalo to all the staff at the festival who made my first experience to the Big Island a wonderful one, I will definitely be back. Aloha.

For more information on the Merrie Monarch Festival, including results from this year's competitions, click here.

And watch Miss Aloha Hula 2013 in action, here: