The Magic of Merrie Monarch Festival: Celebrating Hawaiian Hula Dance

The Merrie Monarch Festival is a renowned Hawaiian cultural event that celebrates the traditional art of hula dance. It takes place annually in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. The festival is named in honor of King David Kalākaua, who was known as the "Merrie Monarch" due to his love for the arts, including hula.

History and Origins:

The Merrie Monarch Festival has a fascinating history rooted in the cultural revival and reawakening that took place in Hawaii during the 20th century. Its origins can be traced back to the reign of King David Kalākaua, who ruled as the Hawaiian monarch from 1874 to 1891. Kalākaua was known as the "Merrie Monarch" due to his love for the arts, music, and hula.

During the 19th century, Hawaii experienced significant cultural suppression due to Western influences. Missionaries and colonial powers sought to suppress traditional Hawaiian practices, including hula, which they considered to be pagan and indecent. As a result, hula was banned in public spaces and schools, and many traditional hula practitioners were forced to go underground.

King Kalākaua, however, was a staunch advocate for the preservation and promotion of Hawaiian culture. He believed that the arts, including hula, were an integral part of Hawaiian identity and a means to showcase the richness of the Hawaiian heritage. He actively supported the revitalization of hula and other traditional practices during his reign, which came to be known as the Hawaiian Renaissance or the Kalākaua Renaissance.

Following King Kalākaua's death in 1891, Hawaii underwent further changes, including the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and eventual annexation by the United States in 1898. Despite these tumultuous times, the spirit of hula and Hawaiian culture persisted among the local population.

Fast forward to the early 1960s when the idea of reviving the ancient hula traditions gained momentum. In 1963, two prominent hula figures, George Na'ope and Gene Wilhelm, founded the Merrie Monarch Festival to honor King Kalākaua and promote the art of hula. The festival was named after Kalākaua's nickname, the "Merrie Monarch," as a tribute to his significant contributions to Hawaiian culture.

The inaugural Merrie Monarch Festival took place in 1964 in the town of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii. It was initially a one-day event but quickly expanded in subsequent years due to its growing popularity and impact. Over time, the festival has become one of the most prestigious and well-known hula competitions in the world.

Today, the Merrie Monarch Festival continues to attract participants and spectators from all over Hawaii, the mainland United States, and beyond. It plays a pivotal role in the perpetuation and celebration of Hawaiian culture and hula, helping to keep traditional practices alive for future generations. The festival's historical roots and significance as a cultural institution make it an integral part of Hawaii's identity and heritage.

Events and Highlights:

The festival typically spans a week, culminating in a three-day hula competition that showcases various traditional hula styles, chants, and oli (chants). Dancers, hālau (hula schools), and their kumu hula (hula teachers) from all over the Hawaiian Islands and beyond come together to participate in the event.

Key events of the festival include:

Hula Kahiko Competition

The Hula Kahiko Competition is one of the most highly anticipated and revered events at the Merrie Monarch Festival. It showcases the ancient style of hula known as hula kahiko, which is deeply rooted in Hawaiian tradition and history. This competition focuses on preserving and perpetuating the authentic, sacred, and historical aspects of hula.

Characteristics of Hula Kahiko:

  • Traditional Chants and Music: Hula kahiko is performed to chants known as "oli" accompanied by traditional musical instruments such as pahu (drums), ipu (gourd drum), and 'uli'uli (feathered gourd rattles). The chants are an integral part of the performance, as they tell stories of Hawaiian mythology, genealogy, and historical events.
  • Ritualistic and Sacred: Hula kahiko often includes elements of sacred rituals and ceremonies. The dance movements and gestures are imbued with meaning and symbolism, reflecting the connection between the dancer, the story being told, and the spiritual world.
  • Traditional Costumes and Adornments: Dancers wear elaborate and historically accurate costumes, which may include tapa cloth skirts, lei (flower garlands), and other adornments that represent the specific story or theme of the dance.
  • Slow and Graceful Movements: Hula kahiko is characterized by slow and deliberate movements that are synchronized with the rhythm of the chants and music. The movements are meant to convey the meanings and emotions of the chant's lyrics.

Competition Format:

The Hula Kahiko Competition at the Merrie Monarch Festival typically takes place on the first or second night of the event. Each participating hālau (hula school) presents a group of dancers who perform their chosen hula kahiko in front of a panel of respected judges and a captivated audience.

The performances are carefully evaluated based on several criteria, including:

  • Authenticity: Judges look for dances that faithfully represent the traditions, gestures, and choreography of ancient hula.
  • Execution: Dancers are judged on their technical skill, mastery of dance movements, and ability to synchronize their movements with the chant and music.
  • Costumes and Adornments: The authenticity and appropriateness of the costumes, adornments, and props used in the performance are taken into account.
  • Interpretation: The hālau's interpretation and expression of the chant's meaning and story are essential in conveying the depth of the performance.
  • Overall Impact: The emotional impact, presence, and overall presentation of the hula kahiko play a crucial role in the judging process.

The winning hālau is awarded the prestigious title of "Overall Winner" in the Hula Kahiko Competition and earns great respect and recognition within the hula community.

The Hula Kahiko Competition is not only a showcase of talent and skill but also a way to honor and preserve the traditional art of hula, ensuring that these ancient cultural practices continue to thrive and inspire generations to come.

Hula ʻAuana Competition

In contrast to the hula kahiko, the hula ʻauana competition showcases modern hula, incorporating contemporary music and costumes. Dancers interpret Hawaiian songs through graceful and expressive movements.

The Hula ʻAuana Competition is another significant event at the Merrie Monarch Festival, showcasing a more contemporary style of hula. Unlike the Hula Kahiko Competition, which focuses on traditional and ancient hula, the Hula ʻAuana Competition allows for a more creative and modern expression of hula dance.

Characteristics of Hula ʻAuana:

  • Contemporary Music and Instruments: Hula ʻauana is performed to modern Hawaiian music, which includes songs with Hawaiian lyrics and melodies influenced by various musical genres, such as jazz, pop, and reggae. The musical accompaniment may feature instruments like the guitar, ukulele, bass, and steel guitar.
  • Graceful and Expressive Movements: Hula ʻauana incorporates fluid and graceful movements, allowing for a more dynamic and interpretive expression of the lyrics and emotions of the song. Dancers may use their hands and body to convey the meaning of the music, sometimes incorporating gestures from hula kahiko as well.
  • Contemporary Costumes: Dancers wear more modern costumes that may include flowing skirts or dresses with vibrant colors and designs, reflecting the theme or mood of the performance.
  • Artistic Expression: Hula ʻauana encourages creativity and artistic interpretation, allowing hālau to present their unique perspectives and innovative choreography while staying true to the essence of hula.

Competition Format:

The Hula ʻAuana Competition usually takes place on the final night of the Merrie Monarch Festival, following the Hula Kahiko Competition. Each hālau participating in this category presents a group of dancers performing their chosen hula ʻauana.

Similar to the Hula Kahiko Competition, the Hula ʻAuana performances are evaluated by a panel of esteemed judges based on various criteria:

  • Choreography and Interpretation: Judges assess the hālau's ability to create original and compelling choreography that effectively interprets the song's lyrics and emotions.
  • Execution and Technique: The technical skill and precision of the dancers in performing hula ʻauana movements are taken into consideration.
  • Costumes and Stage Presence: The costumes, adornments, and overall stage presence of the performers contribute to the visual impact and appeal of the presentation.
  • Musicality: The dancers' ability to connect with and convey the essence of the music is an important aspect of the judging process.
  • Overall Artistic Merit: The judges consider the creativity, innovation, and overall artistic merit of the hālau's performance.

The Hula ʻAuana Competition provides a platform for hālau to showcase their creativity and artistry while demonstrating the evolution of hula as a living, dynamic, and adaptable cultural art form. This category allows hālau to preserve traditional values while incorporating contemporary elements, ensuring that hula remains relevant and captivating to audiences of diverse backgrounds and generations. Like the Hula Kahiko Competition, the Hula ʻAuana Competition plays a pivotal role in perpetuating and celebrating the beauty and significance of hula in Hawaiian culture.

Celebrating Hawaiian Hula Dance

Miss Aloha Hula:

The Miss Aloha Hula competition is one of the highlight events of the Merrie Monarch Festival and is a celebration of the grace, talent, and knowledge of individual hula dancers. Unlike the group competitions (Hula Kahiko and Hula ʻAuana), the Miss Aloha Hula is a solo competition, showcasing the skills and artistry of female dancers.

Characteristics of Miss Aloha Hula:

  • Solo Performance: Each contestant in the Miss Aloha Hula competition performs a solo hula, demonstrating her proficiency in both hula kahiko (ancient hula) and hula ʻauana (modern hula).
  • Versatility: The competition requires the dancers to display their versatility in both traditional and contemporary hula styles. This demonstrates their knowledge and ability to master different aspects of the hula art form.
  • Oli (Chant): The dancers also perform a chant (oli) of their own selection, showcasing their expertise in chanting and its connection to hula.
  • Poise and Elegance: The dancers are expected to exhibit grace, poise, and a deep understanding of the cultural significance and stories conveyed through their performances.

Competition Format:

The Miss Aloha Hula competition usually takes place on the second night of the Merrie Monarch Festival. Each contestant performs her solo hula in front of a panel of judges and a captivated audience.

The competition is divided into two segments:

  • Hula Kahiko: In the first segment, the dancers perform a hula kahiko, showcasing their skills in the ancient style of hula. They interpret traditional chants with graceful movements and expressions, reflecting the rich cultural heritage of Hawaii.
  • Hula ʻAuana: In the second segment, the dancers perform a hula ʻauana, demonstrating their ability to connect with contemporary Hawaiian music and present a modern interpretation of hula.

Scoring and Evaluation:

The judges evaluate each contestant based on several criteria, including:

  • Technique and Skill: The technical execution of hula movements, gestures, and footwork is assessed for both hula kahiko and hula ʻauana.
  • Interpretation and Expression: The dancers' ability to convey the meaning and emotions of the chants and songs through their movements and expressions is considered.
  • Chanting (Oli): The contestant's chanting skills, including pronunciation, tone, and delivery, are evaluated during the Oli performance.
  • Overall Artistry: The judges assess the overall artistry, creativity, and stage presence of the dancer, including her costumes, adornments, and ability to captivate the audience.

The title of "Miss Aloha Hula" is a prestigious honor awarded to the contestant who achieves the highest score and impresses the judges with her exceptional talent and understanding of the hula art form.


The Ho'olaule'a is an integral part of the Merrie Monarch Festival, and it serves as a lively and festive celebration of Hawaiian culture and traditions. The term "Ho'olaule'a" can be translated to mean "celebration" or "festival of merriment" in the Hawaiian language. It is a time for communities to come together, share their arts and crafts, showcase their talents, and enjoy various cultural performances.

Characteristics of Ho'olaule'a:

  • Craft Fair: One of the main features of the Ho'olaule'a is the craft fair, where local artisans and vendors set up booths to display and sell their handmade crafts, artworks, and traditional Hawaiian products. Visitors have the opportunity to purchase a wide range of items, including jewelry, clothing, artwork, carvings, and other unique souvenirs.
  • Cultural Workshops: During the Ho'olaule'a, cultural workshops are often conducted to educate visitors and participants about various aspects of Hawaiian culture. These workshops may cover topics such as hula, lei-making, traditional Hawaiian cooking, language, and more.
  • Music and Entertainment: The festival features live music performances by local musicians and bands, often playing a mix of traditional Hawaiian music, contemporary Hawaiian songs, and other genres. Visitors can enjoy the sounds of the islands and dance to the rhythmic tunes.
  • Art Exhibits: Ho'olaule'a may also include art exhibits, showcasing the works of local artists who capture the beauty and essence of Hawaii through their paintings, sculptures, and other art forms.
  • Food Vendors: The festival offers a diverse array of delicious Hawaiian cuisine and traditional food stalls where attendees can savor a variety of local dishes, including poi, kalua pig, laulau, and haupia.

Community Involvement:

The Ho'olaule'a provides a wonderful opportunity for the local community to actively participate and showcase their talents and skills. Many community members, including children, youths, and adults, take part in various performances, presentations, and demonstrations that reflect the richness of Hawaiian culture.

Cultural Preservation:

The Ho'olaule'a plays a vital role in preserving and promoting Hawaiian culture, traditions, and arts. It allows the younger generation to learn about their heritage and encourages the passing down of traditional practices from one generation to another.

Promotion of Tourism and Economy:

The festival attracts visitors from Hawaii and around the world, contributing significantly to the local economy and tourism industry. It helps create awareness of Hawaiian culture, traditions, and arts, fostering a greater appreciation for the islands and their unique way of life.

Hawaiian and Hula Dance

Significance and Impact

The Merrie Monarch Festival holds immense cultural significance for the Hawaiian people and serves as a vital platform for perpetuating and celebrating the art of hula. It has played a critical role in the resurgence of interest in traditional Hawaiian practices, language, and history. Beyond preserving the art form, the festival fosters a sense of community and pride among Hawaiians and serves as an educational experience for people from all walks of life, promoting cross-cultural understanding.

The festival has also contributed to the local economy, drawing thousands of visitors from around the world each year. Additionally, the event has been televised and live-streamed, further spreading awareness and appreciation for hula on a global scale.

However, it is important to approach the festival with respect and an understanding of its cultural significance. Hula is more than just a dance; it is an essential part of Hawaiian identity and heritage, so visitors are encouraged to engage with the event mindfully and with an open heart.

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