Hula Competitions in Hawaii: History and Importance

Hula, a traditional Hawaiian dance, holds great cultural significance. The same is true with competitions, as they play a crucial role in preserving and showcasing the art of hula, a traditional Hawaiian dance form. The history and importance of hula competitions are rooted in Hawaiian culture, history, and the desire to perpetuate the traditions of the islands.

Hula Competitions

Hula competitions in Hawaii are vibrant and captivating events that showcase the immense skill and cultural significance of the traditional Hawaiian dance form. These competitions typically feature groups or troupes of dancers, both men and women, dressed in elaborate and colorful costumes that reflect the themes of the hula they are performing. The dancers' movements are fluid and graceful, conveying stories through gestures, expressions, and synchronized choreography.

The performances are often accompanied by live music, including traditional Hawaiian instruments such as the ukulele and the ipu (a gourd drum). Chants (oli) and songs complement the dance, adding depth and context to the stories being told. Each hula competition has various categories, such as kahiko (ancient hula) and 'auana (modern hula), allowing for a diverse range of styles and interpretations.

Judges evaluate performances based on criteria such as technique, authenticity, cultural knowledge, expression, and overall impact. The atmosphere is charged with excitement as participants bring their heartfelt performances to the stage, embodying the spirit of their ancestors and the stories they are sharing. Audiences are captivated by the beauty, emotion, and cultural depth of the hula performances, and the competitions serve as a unique window into the traditions and soul of Hawaii.

History of Hula Competitions

The history of hula competitions in Hawaii is closely intertwined with the efforts to revive and preserve the cultural heritage of the islands. Hula, a sacred and integral part of Hawaiian society, faced suppression and marginalization during periods of colonial influence and cultural change. However, the mid-20th century saw a resurgence of interest in hula, leading to the establishment of hula competitions as a means of cultural revival.

The Merrie Monarch Festival, founded in 1963 by Dorothy "Aunty Dottie" Thompson and George Na'ope, is one of the most renowned and influential hula competitions in Hawaii. Named after King David Kalakaua, often referred to as the "Merrie Monarch" due to his support for the arts, the festival aimed to honor the legacy of Kalakaua and rekindle the appreciation for hula. The inaugural event was met with both enthusiasm and skepticism, as hula had been marginalized by missionary influences in the past.

The Merrie Monarch Festival's impact was profound. It focused on both the traditional hula forms (kahiko) and the modern hula forms (‘auana), encouraging a deep understanding of the cultural roots while also allowing for artistic innovation. The festival's strict adherence to cultural authenticity in its performances and its emphasis on the oral tradition of hula handed down from kumu hula (master teachers) ensured that the essence of hula was preserved.

Over the years, the Merrie Monarch Festival became a catalyst for the revitalization of hula and Hawaiian culture. It drew participants from all over the Hawaiian Islands and inspired the establishment of similar competitions, both within Hawaii and beyond. These competitions not only celebrated the dance but also the chant, language, and history that are intertwined with hula.

Importance of Hula Competitions

The importance of Hula competitions is huge, as they the key factor for preserving and showcasing the art of this traditional dance for. Moreover, they do this in so many aspects, so let’s check some of them:

Importance of Hula Competitions

Cultural Preservation

Cultural preservation refers to the efforts made to safeguard and maintain the cultural heritage of a particular group, society, or community. It involves protecting the traditions, practices, beliefs, languages, arts, and historical knowledge that define a culture's identity. Cultural preservation is vital for maintaining diversity, fostering a sense of belonging, and ensuring the continuity of traditions for future generations.

In the context of Hawaii, cultural preservation is of utmost importance due to its history of colonization, Western influence, and attempts to suppress indigenous practices. Hula, as a traditional Hawaiian dance form, holds a central place in these preservation efforts. Hula competitions play a significant role in cultural preservation by: 

  • Transmission of Knowledge: Hula competitions provide a platform for skilled practitioners, known as kumu hula (master teachers), and their students to showcase their expertise. These events encourage the passing down of knowledge from one generation to another. The dancers learn not only the physical movements but also the stories, chants, and historical context associated with each hula. 
  • Authenticity: Hula competitions emphasize the importance of performing hula with authenticity. Participants delve into the cultural background of each hula, understanding the stories and emotions they convey. This commitment to authenticity ensures that the traditions are not diluted or distorted over time.
  • Revival of Traditional Practices: In periods of colonial influence, many traditional Hawaiian practices, including hula, were suppressed or discouraged. Hula competitions, like the Merrie Monarch Festival, played a pivotal role in reviving interest and respect for these practices. They provided a safe and respected space for the performance of hula and the celebration of Hawaiian culture.
  • Preserving Language and Chants: Hula competitions incorporate the use of traditional chants (oli) and songs, which are often performed in the Hawaiian language. This practice contributes to the preservation of the language and the chants themselves, which hold valuable historical and cultural significance.
  • Cultural Identity: Cultural preservation through hula competitions fosters a sense of pride and identity among Hawaiians. It reaffirms their connection to their ancestors, land, and traditions, reinforcing their unique cultural heritage in the face of external influences.
  • Educational Outreach: Hula competitions also serve as educational tools for both Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians. Audiences learn about the stories, history, and symbolism behind each performance, gaining a deeper appreciation for the cultural richness of Hawaii.

Skill Showcase

The skill showcase aspect of hula competitions is a central element that highlights the mastery and dedication of hula practitioners. These competitions provide a platform for dancers, chanters, musicians, and costume designers to demonstrate their expertise, creativity, and deep understanding of the art of hula. 

  • Dance Technique: Hula competitions showcase dancers' technical proficiency, precision, and mastery of the physical movements. Hula involves intricate hand gestures, footwork, body movements, and expressions that convey emotions, stories, and cultural nuances. Competitors display their ability to execute these movements gracefully and precisely, often demonstrating years of rigorous training. 
  • Chant and Song Interpretation: Chants (oli) and songs play an integral role in hula performances. Chanters showcase their skill in reciting the oli with proper pronunciation, rhythm, and intonation, enhancing the storytelling aspect of the dance. Singers complement the dance with melodious vocals, harmonizing with the movements to create a seamless performance.
  • Cultural Knowledge: Successful hula practitioners go beyond the physical aspects of the dance. They delve into the historical and cultural context of each hula, understanding the stories, symbolism, and emotions they convey. Skillful performers are able to infuse their dance with authenticity, ensuring that the cultural significance is accurately portrayed.
  • Choreography and Creativity: Hula competitions often encourage creativity within the bounds of cultural authenticity. Choreographers design routines that blend tradition with innovation, finding new ways to interpret classic stories or themes. This aspect of skill showcase highlights the dynamic evolution of hula while maintaining its cultural essence.
  • Costume and Adornments: The costumes worn during hula performances are intricate and often reflect the themes of the dances. Competitors showcase their attention to detail and craftsmanship by designing and creating these costumes, which can include traditional garments, natural materials, and symbolic adornments.
  • Group Synchronization: In group performances, synchronization is key. Dancers showcase their ability to move in harmony with their fellow performers, creating a visually captivating and emotionally resonant experience for the audience.
  • Expressive Communication: Skillful hula practitioners excel in conveying emotions, stories, and cultural messages through their expressions and gestures. The ability to communicate effectively through movement and facial expressions is a hallmark of a skilled hula dancer.

Community Building

Community building is a crucial aspect of hula competitions in Hawaii, fostering connections among participants, audiences, and the broader community. These events bring people together in a shared celebration of culture, tradition, and artistic expression. The sense of unity and shared identity that hula competitions cultivate has a lasting impact on individuals and the community as a whole:

  • Shared Cultural Experience: Hula competitions provide a space for individuals to collectively immerse themselves in Hawaiian culture. Participants and attendees alike become part of a shared experience that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the traditions and stories behind the performances.
  • Cultural Exchange: Hula competitions often attract participants and attendees from various Hawaiian islands, different parts of the world, and diverse cultural backgrounds. This diversity fosters a spirit of cross-cultural exchange, where people can learn about each other's traditions, perspectives, and histories.
  • Inter-generational Bonds: Hula competitions offer a unique opportunity for different generations to come together. Elders, as keepers of traditional knowledge, often play a central role in teaching younger participants. This inter-generational interaction strengthens family and community bonds and ensures the transmission of cultural heritage.
  • Supportive Environment: The competitive aspect of hula competitions is balanced by a spirit of camaraderie and support. Participants often express mutual respect and encouragement for one another, recognizing the dedication and effort required to master the art of hula.
  • Local Economy and Tourism: Hula competitions have a positive impact on the local economy, attracting visitors and tourists who contribute to the community by patronizing local businesses, accommodations, and restaurants. This economic boost benefits both the community and the broader region.
  • Cultural Revitalization: Hula competitions play a role in rekindling a sense of pride and identity within the Hawaiian community. They offer a platform for cultural revitalization by celebrating practices that were once suppressed or undervalued, thereby strengthening the cultural fabric of the community.
  • Lifelong Connections: Participants often form lasting friendships and connections with fellow dancers, teachers, and audience members. These connections can extend beyond the competition itself, creating a network of individuals who share a passion for hula and Hawaiian culture.

Economic Impact

Hula competitions in Hawaii, such as the renowned Merrie Monarch Festival, have a significant economic impact on the local communities and the broader region. These events attract participants, audiences, and tourists, generating revenue and stimulating various sectors of the economy. 

  • Tourism: Hula competitions draw visitors from within Hawaii and around the world who come specifically to attend these events. Tourists spend money on accommodations, transportation, dining, shopping, and other tourist-related activities, contributing to the local economy. 
  • Accommodations: The influx of visitors for hula competitions increases demand for accommodations such as hotels, vacation rentals, and bed and breakfasts. This surge in bookings benefits hospitality businesses and generates additional revenue.
  • Dining and Entertainment: Local restaurants, cafes, and eateries often experience higher customer volumes during hula competition periods. Tourists and participants patronize these establishments, leading to increased sales and revenue.
  • Merchandise and Souvenirs: Hula competitions provide opportunities for vendors to sell merchandise related to hula, Hawaiian culture, and the event itself. Attendees often purchase souvenirs, clothing, accessories, and crafts, contributing to local businesses and artisans.
  • Transportation: Increased travel to and from the competition location benefits transportation providers, including airlines, car rental companies, taxi services, and public transportation.
  • Local Businesses: Beyond the tourism sector, hula competitions benefit various other local businesses. Retail shops, art galleries, and cultural centers often experience a boost in sales as attendees explore the community and engage with the local culture.
  • Job Creation: The higher demand for services and goods during hula competitions can lead to temporary job opportunities, especially in industries such as hospitality, event management, catering, and retail.
  • Community Investment: The revenue generated from hula competitions can be reinvested into the local community. Event organizers and sponsors might allocate funds for cultural programs, infrastructure improvements, or initiatives that benefit the community at large.
  • Cultural Exchange and Education: The economic impact of hula competitions goes hand in hand with the cultural exchange and education aspects. As visitors and tourists engage with local culture and traditions, they contribute to the preservation and appreciation of Hawaiian heritage.

Economic Impact

Education and Appreciation

Hula competitions in Hawaii serve as powerful platforms for education and appreciation, fostering a deeper understanding of Hawaiian culture, history, and the intricate art of hula itself. These events offer numerous opportunities for both participants and audiences to learn, engage, and develop a genuine appreciation for the traditions being showcased:

  • Cultural Education: Hula competitions educate audiences about the rich cultural heritage of Hawaii. Each performance tells a story, often rooted in Hawaiian mythology, history, or daily life. Through the dance, chant, and music, audiences learn about the values, beliefs, and experiences of the Hawaiian people.
  • Historical Context: The narratives presented in hula performances often carry historical significance. Audiences gain insights into various periods of Hawaiian history, including pre-colonial times, the monarchy era, and periods of change and adversity.
  • Symbolism and Meaning: Hula competitions encourage participants to delve deep into the symbolism and meaning of each dance. Audiences learn about the significance of gestures, facial expressions, and costumes, as well as the broader cultural messages embedded in the performances.
  • Language Preservation: Many hula competitions incorporate Hawaiian chants (oli) and songs, helping to preserve and promote the Hawaiian language. As attendees listen to the chants and songs, they become exposed to the unique sounds and structure of the language.
  • Appreciation for Tradition: By witnessing the skill and dedication required to master hula, audiences develop a newfound respect for the tradition. They recognize the amount of time, effort, and cultural understanding that participants invest in their performances.
  • Emotional Connection: Hula's ability to convey emotion and stories through movement and expression creates an emotional connection between performers and audiences. Attendees are often moved by the beauty, grace, and depth of the performances.
  • Cross-Cultural Understanding: Hula competitions attract a diverse audience, both locally and globally. People from different backgrounds have the opportunity to learn about Hawaiian culture and gain a broader understanding of the world's cultural diversity.
  • Connection to Nature and Land: Hula often draws inspiration from the natural world, including the elements, plants, and animals of Hawaii. This connection to nature is emphasized in performances, contributing to a greater appreciation for the islands' unique environment.

Inspiration for Future Generations

Hula competitions in Hawaii serve as a wellspring of inspiration for future generations, motivating young individuals to connect with their cultural roots, engage in artistic pursuits, and carry forward the legacy of hula and Hawaiian traditions. This inspiration is multi-faceted and has a lasting impact on the youth.

  • Cultural Pride and Identity: Hula competitions instill a sense of cultural pride and identity in younger generations. Witnessing the beauty and depth of hula performances, young Hawaiians are encouraged to embrace their heritage and recognize the significance of their culture in shaping who they are. 
  • Artistic Expression: The performances showcased in hula competitions demonstrate the power of artistic expression. Young individuals are inspired to explore their own creative inclinations, whether in hula, other forms of dance, visual arts, or music.
  • Preservation of Traditions: As the torchbearers of the future, younger generations play a crucial role in preserving cultural traditions. The exposure to hula competitions sparks an interest in learning traditional practices, keeping them alive for years to come.
  • Mentorship and Apprenticeship: Many hula practitioners, known as kumu hula, are dedicated teachers who pass on their knowledge to younger students. Hula competitions create opportunities for mentorship and apprenticeship, allowing young dancers to learn from experienced masters.
  • Sense of Community: The inclusive and supportive community that surrounds hula competitions provides a sense of belonging for young individuals. They form connections with peers who share their interests and values, fostering a network of like-minded friends.
  • Pursuit of Excellence: The high standards set by hula competitions inspire younger generations to aim for excellence in their pursuits. Whether in hula or other aspects of their lives, they learn the value of dedication, hard work, and continuous improvement.
  • Connection to Ancestral Roots: Hula competitions often draw inspiration from historical events, myths, and legends. Young participants and spectators are motivated to delve into their ancestral roots, understanding the stories that shape their heritage.
  • Cultural Responsibility: Young Hawaiians who engage with hula competitions gain a sense of responsibility toward their culture. They recognize the importance of upholding and sharing their traditions, ensuring that they are passed down to future generations.
  • Empowerment: Seeing young dancers on stage, audiences realize that age is not a barrier to making a significant impact. This realization empowers young individuals to step forward, share their voices, and contribute meaningfully to their communities.


Hula competitions in Hawaii are multifaceted events with a profound impact on the cultural, economic, and social fabric of the region. Rooted in the revival of hula as a cultural treasure, these competitions play a pivotal role in preserving Hawaiian heritage, educating audiences about history and symbolism, and fostering a deep appreciation for the art form. By showcasing the mastery of dancers, chanters, and musicians, hula competitions not only celebrate cultural traditions but also inspire future generations to embrace their identity, engage in artistic pursuits, and become stewards of their culture. This dynamic interplay of education, community building, economic growth, and inspiration positions hula competitions as vibrant conduits that connect the past, present, and future of Hawaiian culture.

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