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Hilo celebrates ‘Olympics of hula’

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  • A hula competition became part of the Merrie Monarch Festival in 1971 and quickly became its central event. The late Paleka Leinaala Mattos led Hula Halau 'o Kamuela during the auana competition in 1988. (Dennis Oda /
  • Kumu Hula Johnny Lum Ho's Halau Ka Ua Kani Lehua has long been an audience favorite at the Merrie Monarch. The men took first place in the auana portion of the competition in 2003 and won the overall title as well. (Dennis Oda /
  • Halau Hula Olana, under the direction of Howard and Olana Ai, danced in rich, glossy burgundy gowns during the auana portion of the hula competition in 2007. (Dennis Oda /
  • Interest exploded after 1976, when men joined the competition. Many kane dances have been especially lively and startling. Halau O Ka Ua Kilihune danced in two-tone makeup in the kahiko competition in 1996. --Dennis Oda /
  • Kumu hula Darrell Lupenui, founder of Waimapuna. (Star-Advertiser File)
  • Helene Hale, founder of the Merrie Monarch. (Star-Advertiser File)
  • The selection of hula attire and adornments are part of the hula competition. Keolalaulani Halau 'Olapa O Laka of Kaneohe, directed by Aloha Dalire, performed in flowing cream-colored outfits during the kahiko competition in 2005. Dalire was the first Miss Aloha Hula. (Dennis oda /

An international audience has come to know a singular Hawaiian art form through the venerable annual festival

In the earliest days of the Merrie Monarch Festival, there was no hula competition.

There was a coronation pageant, a King Kalakaua beard contest and a “Grogge Shop” offering drinks and entertainment in the festival’s first incarnation in 1964.


Schedule of events:

» Hoolaulea with performances by local halau, 9 a.m. today, Afook Chinen Civic Auditorium; free

» King Kalakaua Beard & Look-Alike Contest, 5 p.m. Monday, Mo’oheau Bandstand

» Barbershop quartet contest, 5 p.m. Tuesday, Mo‘oheau Bandstand

» Entertainment at Naniloa Volcanoes Resort (noon) and Hilo Hawaiian Hotel (1 p.m.), Monday through Friday; free

» Arts and Crafts Fair, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium

» Hoike, an exhibition of hula and music, 5:45 p.m. Wednesday, Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium; sold out

» Miss Aloha Hula competition, 5:45 p.m. Thursday, Edith Kanaka’ole Multi-Purpose Stadium; sold out

» Group hula kahiko competition, 5:45 p.m. Friday; sold out

» Group hula auana competition and awards, 5:45 p.m. Saturday; sold out

» Merrie Monarch Royal Parade, 10:30 a.m. Saturday, begins and ends at Pauahi Street and winds through downtown Hilo


Hula became part of the festival a few years later under the vision of Dorothy Thompson and George Na‘ope, who launched the hula competition in 1971. The one-day event was held at the Hilo Civic Auditorium, where nine halau danced on a gym floor.

Festival President Luana Kawelu, Thompson’s daughter, recalls that back then, $1 buttons for admission to the festival were a tough sell.

“My mom and Uncle George could hardly sell them,” she said. “My mom would offer a deal for groups to sell it, splitting 50 cents, and even then we had a hard time selling.”

The audience grew after 1976, she recalls, when men joined the competition, and it eventually had to move to a larger venue: the Ho‘oulu Stadium, now known as the Edith Kanaka’ole Multi-Purpose Stadium.

Now festival tickets sell out in one day as they have for decades, and hotel accommodations in Hilo are completely booked for the duration of the competition, which runs Thursday through Saturday during the weeklong Merrie Monarch Festival.

Kawelu estimates she had to turn down about 7,000 ticket requests this year. The stadium has about 4,200 seats, with half reserved for halau participants, friends and family, leaving only about 2,100 open to the public.

The desperation with which fans from around the globe seek tickets for what is often described as the “Olympics of hula” is further evidence of the festival’s standing as the largest and most prestigious Hawaiian cultural event of the year.

“It’s probably the most meaningful cultural event from that standpoint,” said George Applegate, executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau. “Hula itself is a very significant part of it.”

The festival last year generated an estimated $1.4 million in direct, out-of-state visitor spending, $2.4 million in sales and $132,000 in state tax revenue for Hawaii, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

The sleepy town of Hilo comes alive with craft fairs, art shows, musical performances and other cultural events related to the festival. Restaurants are filled to capacity, and visitors trek to Big Island Candies and Sig Zane Designs for omiyage and other gifts.

At this year’s 50th Merrie Monarch Festival, 26 halau (hula groups) — 15 from Oahu, four from Hawaii island, two from Maui, two from Kauai and three from California — will compete.

“It’s a special tribute,” said Kawelu. “It’s a tribute to all the kumu hula, past and present, who have dedicated their lives to hula, and also to the musicians who have played an integral part in hula and the festival.”

She added, “I just wish my mom and Uncle George could be here to celebrate with us. It was my mom’s hard work under the guidance of Uncle that made this a reality.”

Na’ope died in October 2009, and Thompson just a few months later in March 2010.


‘Imiloa Astronomy Center Merrie Monarch workshops:

» 10 a.m. Wednesday, panel discussion on hula master George Na‘ope

» 1 p.m. Wednesday, discussion and rare video of hula greats of the 20th century

» 10 a.m. Thursday, talk-story session and hula performance with Hau’oli Hula Maids, winner of first Merrie Monarch hula competition in 1971

» 1 p.m. Thursday, panel discussion on the Men of Waimapuna and kumu hula Darrell Lupenui

» 10 a.m. Friday, presentation and hula performance with Pelehonuamea Suganuma Harman and Kekoa L. Harman of Ke Kula ‘o Nawahiokalani‘opu’u in Keaau and Ka Haka ‘Ula o Ke‘elikolani at the University of Hawaii at Hilo

» 1 p.m. Friday, talk-story session and hula performance by Aloha Dalire, first Miss Aloha Hula in 1971

Cost: $5 members, $6 nonmembers; for tickets call 969-9703 or visit guest service desk; for information visit

East Hawaii Cultural Center Contemporary Hawaiian Quilt Show: Daily quilting demonstrations and free lessons. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. East Hawaii Cultural Center, second floor, 141 Kalakaua St.

Basically Books: Free lectures Monday through Saturday, beginning 11:30 a.m. Monday with historian Boyd Bond, who will discuss the life and times of King David Kalakaua and his impact on the revival of hula.

Ishmael Stagner will sign copies of “Kumu Hula: Roots and Branches” at 11 a.m. Thursday.

Free entertainment by Na Hoku Hanohano winners Kainani Kahaunaele, Weldon Kekauoha, Cyril Pahinui and Manu Boyd during the week. Basically Books, 160 Kamehameha Ave. Call 961-0144 or visit for full schedule.

Volcano Art Center: Craft demonstrations, book signings, ukulele lessons and more, Wednesday through April 7. Call 967-7565 or visit

THE MERRIE Monarch Festival’s origins date to 1963, when the late Helene Hale, then chairwoman of the Hawaii County Board of Supervisors, conceived the idea as a way to boost the economy in Hilo, still struggling to recover from the devastating 1960 tsunami that wiped out much of the town.

Ishmael Stagner, author of “Kumu Hula Roots and Branches,” recalls the earliest days as a sort of May Day festival.

“It was like Aloha Week,” Stagner said. “Hilo was trying to get back on its feet and to generate something Hilo could be proud of. The festival was a means to boost the spirits of the Hilo people, more than anything else, and Merrie Monarch has proved the resilience of Hilo and its people.”

Even though there was no competition, Stagner recalls the hula performances were of high quality.

The festival was on its last legs in 1968 when Thompson volunteered to take over and revamp it, making Hawaiian culture its core.

With Na‘ope, they invited the best hula dancers from around the isles to compete at Merrie Monarch, replicating an event held by King David Kalakaua. The idea was to honor the king, who reigned from 1874 to 1891 and is credited with reviving hula and Hawaiian culture.

The advent of the hula competition in 1971 came just as the Hawaiian Renaissance was gaining momentum, generating a renewed interest in Hawaiian language and traditional practices.

“Merrie Monarch was absolutely central to the revival and reinvigoration of hula,” said ethnomusicologist Amy Stillman, citing the years from 1979 to 1992 that each halau was required to come up with a competition chant for their kahiko number.

“That requirement meant that kumu hula could not simply repeat,” she said. “They were forced to create, and that was absolutely central to reinstating hula as a living tradition and not just a heritage tradition.”

Hawaiian language scholar and kumu hula Puakea Nogelmeier said Merrie Monarch has given halau a collective presence on a global stage and continues to play an important role in the renaissance of Hawaiian culture.

“It gives a very tangible presence to something that’s eminently Hawaiian,” he said. “For halau that do participate, it gives them a set of motivations and tangible goals to reach for. That can be unifying.”

At the same time, Nogelmeier points out there is a “bigger life” to hula than what’s seen in a competition format. He’s encouraged by kumu hula who continue to keep Hawaiian language at the foundation of hula.

“All the arts are bolstered by that drive,” he said.

KUMU HULA Kilohana Silve says watching Merrie Monarch on television brought her back to her roots and was part of the inspiration for starting the first halau in Paris 20 years ago.

“Hula is a world-class art,” she said. “It’s loved by people all around the world.”

The Merrie Monarch competition takes place over three days, beginning with the Miss Aloha Hula solo competition on Thursday, followed by hula kahiko (ancient style) Friday and hula auana (modern style) Saturday.

“We have introduced our hulas to the world through Merrie Monarch,” said kumu hula Ed Collier, “hoping that people will understand what our culture is all about by watching us on TV.”

Puanani Alama, 82, the last living judge from that first Merrie Monarch hula competition in 1971, recalls the excitement that year. Even though the event didn’t have the same exposure as it does today, the handful of halau competing took it seriously.

“It was quite different,” said Alama, who will attend the festival this year. “You just couldn’t compare. Now it’s very colorful and well staged.”

She continued, “You could feel every dancer as she got up there — this is a beautiful tree, and this is how a flower looks. It’s her feeling and no one feels alike. We’re all individuals. That’s what I saw when I judged.”

It was easy to tell who the dancers’ kumu was by the style in which they danced. The focus of the competition today is more on precision, and “it’s just a little more theatrical,” she said.

“But it’s still the hula.”

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