Merrie Monarch Festival is the World Championship, or Olympics if you will, of the art of hula. This annual hula competition takes place every spring in the town of Hilo, Hawaiʻi on the Big Island.
Competition is fierce but not in an angry or mean way. This passion comes from a deep desire to carry on traditions and stories of the past with the utmost respect and honor. Every move of the lovely hula hand, every fern woven with care to adorn a dancer’s poʻo (head) is done with purpose and meaning. The Merrie Monarch is more than a competition; it is a great showcasing of the best of Hawaiian culture and traditions.
To really understand the meaning behind the music, the costumes, the movements, listen carefully as the kumu hula (hula teachers) and ʻōlapa (dancers) share about how they prepared for their numbers.
Merrie Monarch Week
Every year, the Merrie Monarch festival begins with a hoʻolauleʻa (really big party) on Easter Sunday. There is food, music, crafts and lots of performances by local hālau hula (hula schools).
Wednesday is Hoike Night
The following Wednesday is the Hōʻike, meaning “show.” Hōʻike Night is also called the “free night,” because there are no tickets sold and no admission charged. Admission is granted on a first come, first served basis. And the venue, the Edith Kanakaʻole Stadium, always reaches full capacity. We recommend you line up early if you hope to get in.
For those who faithfully stand in line for hours leading up to Hōʻike Night, the rewards are great. Hōʻike Night is done ʻohana (family) style, with much celebrating and rejoicing. Hālau hula from Hilo perform and host dance troops from around the world. Examples of visiting dancers include Tahitian dance troops, aboriginal Taiwanese dancers, and Moari (New Zealand) dancers.
Hōʻike Night is also the night of the presentation of the royal court. Each year, a man and woman from the Hawaiian community are invited to represent King Kalākaua and his queen, Kapiʻolani. King Kalākaua is the monarch for whom the Merrie Monarch Festival is named. He is credited with reviving the Hawaiian arts, including hula, after the arts had been suppressed by early missionaries in Hawaiʻi. Kalākaua was known at the “Merrie Monarch” due to his jovial nature and love of grand parties.
Thursday is the Miss Aloha Hula Competition
Thursday night of the Merrie Monarch Festival is a special night. This is the Miss Aloha Hula Competition. Young ladies from around the world, but primarily Hawaiʻi, compete for the crown of Miss Aloha Hula. This is the most prestigious individual title in the hula world.
Friday is the Kahiko Hula Competition
Friday night showcases hula kahiko, or ancient hula. Expect to see traditional clothing, which has been handmade by the dancers themselves. Expressions tend to be more solemn, as the subject matter of the dances tends to be of a more serious nature – a lover’s betrayal, a chiefess’ defiance of the fire goddess Pele, a treacherous battle. These are the hula that tell the stories of Hawaiʻi’s culture. Kumu hula will ʻoli, or chant, rather than sing. These chants will be accompanied by the sound of the beating drum or the ʻipu heke (double gourd).
Saturday is Auana Hula Competition
Saturday night is the ʻauana (modern) hula competition. Expect to see long flowing gowns, bright cheery smiles, and lots of plumeria flowers. Expect to hear songs sung in both English and Hawaiian accompanied by the melody of the ʻukulele.
Hula ʻauana is the type of hula that was common to see in Hawaiʻi’s boat days of the early 1900s carrying through to the 1960s and 70s.
Saturday is Also Awards Night
Saturday night, being the final night of competition, is also the awards night. There are many awards given, most notably awards for ʻauana and kahiko hula in both the men and women’s division. There is also an overall winner, the hālau hula with the most combined points. Tension is high and everyone is at the edge of his or her seat as they await the results of the judges. Many months, if not years, of preparation will be judged in these final moments.
Saturday Features a Royal Procession
Saturday is the Merrie Monarch Royal Parade with a procession of horses, cars and floats winding through Downtown Hilo. Festival goers can soak in the fullness of the last day of festivities and get ready for the final night of competition.
How to Get Merrie Monarch Festival Tickets
Merrie Monarch tickets can only be obtained by sending a written request. Written requests are accepted starting December 1st of the previous year. Click here for more information.
Watching the Merrie Monarch Festival Live
The Merrie Monarch hula competition is televised and streamed live every year. If you miss the live show, retelecasts and re-streaming are also available. Click here for more information.
For more information about the Merrie Monarch Festival, visit www.hawaii.com/merrie-monarch.