The 57th annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo has been canceled, marking the latest and one of the most anticipated events in Hawaii to be suspended in the wake of the spreading COVID-19 disease.
Merrie Monarch Festivals President Luana Kawelu made the decision Thursday, one month before the festival was scheduled to begin.
“This was such a hard decision to make,” Kawelu said in a news release. “But we could not risk the health and well-being of our community, halau participants, vendors and the thousands of people who attend Merrie Monarch every year. In the end, we believe that keeping people healthy and safe must be the highest priority and we all need to take on this kuleana in the face of the threat posed by COVID-19.”
The popular, weeklong hula competition began in 1964 and is named after Hawaii’s last king, David Kalakaua, who was also known as the “Merrie Monarch.”
Longtime participants who have been practicing for the competition for months were reeling Thursday after the announcement, although they acknowledged what they considered to be a sound decision.
“I expected it. I hoped and prayed that it wouldn’t, but inside I knew that this was coming,” said Shelsea Ai Apana, a kumu hula (hula teacher). “Our whole community, our hula community, is based on knowledge and love for our kupuna. And if our kupuna are the ones at risk, then why would we do that to them?”
Apana, 36, runs a halau (class) for hula with her parents, who are also kumu hula.
“On the flip side, it also hurts,” she said. “It hurts a lot, you know? I said to my husband, ‘I don’t know what to do with myself now.’”
APANA, who lives in Aiea, said she and her students have been practicing three to five days per week since January to prepare for the Merrie Monarch Festival, although planning is a yearlong process.
The cancellation is a new experience for Apana, who has attended the festival every year since she was 4.
“I feel like there’s something missing from my life, and I didn’t expect it was going to happen,” she said. “I feel like … a part of my heart is taken out, like a part of my soul is gone.”
Robert Keano Kaupu IV, also a kumu hula, planned to take 37 students to compete.
“Is it a shock? Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “It’s disappointing and it is sad, but it is what it is.”
Kaupu, 44, said he and his students were nearly ready for the competition, and although he had prepared for its cancellation, it still came as a surprise.
“We’ve been preparing (for it to be canceled) … but never in a million years did I think that it would, just because it never did (before),” he said.
Kaupu, from Kalihi, has been dancing since he was 6.
For both Kaupu and Apana, the decision to cancel the Merrie Monarch Festival might lead to them suspending their own classes.
“We’re also thinking of closing down our classes until we know what’s happening with the virus,” Apana said.
“This may be the point of push … because I absolutely agree that maybe we need to go forward with … closing down classes,” Kaupu said.
Still, they feel the sting of not being able to attend the festival, an important event both for cultural and communal reasons.
“For some of our girls, it was going to be their first year … and for others, this was going to be their last.” Apana said. “All of these emotions are flying through the roof all because of one competition, but it’s because of how much we love hula and we love our culture and love participating.”